October 3, 2019

GENRE | Sympathy for the 'Joker' – Joaquin Phoenix Laughs Last

"I don't believe in anything."
Joaquin Phoenix Todd Phillips | DC Joker

Joker, director Todd Phillips' misanthropic, hard R-rated exploration of the Batman supervillain's dark origins, is perhaps the perfect garbage movie for our current garbage times. Gifted actor Joaquin Phoenix goes full Taxi Driver for this gritty, early 1980s era take on the clown prince of crime's unreliable beginnings.

It is unfortunate Joker has almost nothing meaningful to say about mental illness, wealth disparity, angry young men turning to violence, or anything at all for all its dazzling cinematic talent. Phillips' gorgeously shot visual design and stylish direction would have much better served any of the many standard comic book or superhero stories. Instead, his unnecessary psychodrama about how a supervillain becomes a supervillain is pure disaffected white male fantasy.

Co-starring a perfectly stunt-casted Robert De Niro riffing on his The King of Comedy wannabe comedian character here as a Johnny Carson type, Phillips' adoration for late 1970s New Hollywood era Martin Scorsese crime flicks rings hollow. For a contemporary comparison, imagine a derivative Fight Club without any of the thoughtful commentaries on consumerism and subtext or moral questioning.

What's most troublesome is how the Joker and Batman as characters are supposed to exist in opposition as a sort of ugly balance of crime and punishment. Without the Caped Crusader, this early interpretation of Joker doesn't fit. Evil without vengeance makes it unbalanced.

Joaquin Phoenix Todd Phillips | Modern Times | Joker

Phillips continues to try and prove his serious filmmaking credentials (not that ever needed to) but would have been better off not exploring a singularly bleak vision of a full-on murderer and giving him sympathetic motivations as a victim of society. His script co-written with Scott Silver does far too much to glamourize the twisted Batman mythology through the context of amoral villainry.

Phoenix's committed acting, gaunt physicality, and general creepy presence are impressive, but the Joker shouldn't be this human. He's a force of inexplicably random chaos with no purpose. Here, he's a weird anti-hero symbol of the inequalities of Gotham City. Him being presented as any kind of glossy hero, even a twisted one worshipped by the desperate masses, feels gross.

Joker might be every entitled angry young white man's new favourite movie. It's hard not to think of some misinformed viewers taking away a very wrong message, especially with the violent tendencies dramatized. It's easy to forget the striking film is merely an attempt to artfully reimagine the famed clown criminal as a human figure on his own outside of his arch-nemesis. Without Batman, he's just poorly explained evil and that's not particularly interesting. The Joker needs and is defined by opposition.

Joker screens on 70mm film exclusively at The Park Theatre.

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