It’s telling that even your uncredited work for Joker refers to social status. Once Joker works through its multiple tone-shifting endings, it’s class—and the inevitability of class warfare—that director Todd Phillips wants to leave audiences thinking about.
Or maybe he just thinks it’s all a big joke, and none of it matters. I’m not sure.
That’s the problem at the heart of Joker, which wants to be a firebrand social commentary and anarchic send-up at the same time, but ends up splitting the difference to diminished effect. One part of Joker wants us to cheer on the angry mobs Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck inspires, while the other part wants us to give that rage the middle finger as we soft shoe into the evening air.
It’s not for lack of trying, though. Phillips and co-screenwriter Scott Silver cherry-pick the past 40 years of cinema for most obvious antiheroes and prophets of doom they can find: Howard Beale (Network), Alex DeLarge (A Clockwork Orange), and not-one-but-two Robert DeNiro icons, Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) and Rupert Pupkin (King of Comedy). Perhaps unsurprisingly, viewing the world through this many disparate lenses makes for a pretty murky worldview. That might explain the muted earth tones that make up most of cinematographer Lawrence Sher’s pallet.
Joker isn’t an ugly movie, though; it’s exceeding well shot, and really quite well made, technically. And at the heart, it has Phoenix’s stellar performance as Joker-in-the-making Fleck. Even though the character feels pretty contrived from the outset—Fleck as a hire-by-the hour clown suffering from an emotional condition that causes him to laugh hysterically when he feels anxiety, which feels just this side of preordained—Phoenix grounds him in a recognizable humanity. Disaffected loners have long been in Phoenix’s wheelhouse, and he makes the most of this opportunity.
Joker follows Fleck’s sad-sack descent into violent madness, a version of Taxi Driver where Travis Bickle works daily as a clown. His aspirations, however, are not to bring a version of Bickle’s “cleansing rain” to Gotham, opting instead for the Pupkin-esque dream of being his own king of comedy. Feck wants nothing more than to appear as a stand-up comedian on The Murray Franklin Show, who’s titular host is played by—wait for it—Robert DeNiro. If nothing else, Joker wears its influences on its sleeve. If Phoenix wasn’t at the centre, grounding it all, Joker would come off as a pastiche parody.
It’s everything around Phoenix’s nuanced performance that feels overly constructed. Is Fleck a victim of the system’s callous disregard, or an angry sociopath losing his last remaining grip on empathy? He’s both – maybe. I don't mind ambiguity in my movies, but I do like a coherent worldview with which to judge its characters’ actions. That said, Joker has maybe one coherent point of view: everyone’s an asshole. From the down-on-their-luck, just trying to get by, to the members of your elite Gotham class. Hell, even Gotham’s children are just the worst.
The thing is, when everyone’s an asshole, how are we supposed to feel when Fleck starts acting out against all of them? Even the film itself doesn’t know. The few acts of kindness made towards Fleck are reversed by a late-second act revelation, rendering them null and void. And after an overly-telegraphed “surprising” act of violence, Phillips makes a direct reference to Network, pulling the camera back to reveal a bank of TVs in a store window, showing this act just one in a buffet of mind-numbing entertainment. The song accompanying this shot? Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass’s Spanish Flea. Are we to see Fleck’s violence as just another part of the middle-brow pop landscape? Honestly, I can dig that. Unfortunately, the film goes on for what amounts to two more endings, one of which tries to make a grander point of it all, undercutting this wry moment.
So, yes, Alex, your Gotham Elite could just has easily been uncredited as “Gotham Asshole”, but then, so could almost every member of this cast. As Joker reverses and then double-reverses on the points it’s trying to make, tying itself into knots include canonical characters and incidents from the lager DC universe, it shows its true colours as just one more connecting dot in a corporate world-building strategy. An ironic fate for something that wants to look so hell-bent on raging against the machine.
It’s not that Joker is a bad movie – the performances and filmmaking is too good to dismiss it out right. Like its main character and the characters it references, it’s just confused. To sum it up, perhaps it’s best to paraphrase one of those characters, Travis Bickle:
It’s not that I don’t like it. I just think it’s silly.