Review: 'Joker' fails to live up to its artistic aspirations

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 10/8/19 2:05am

“Joker” is not the most boring film I’ve seen all year. Nor is it the most poorly made. Nevertheless, “Joker” is probably the worst film I’ve seen in 2019, or at least the one I despised the most. 

Indeed, the fact that it is neither boring nor poorly made ultimately ends up highlighting the stark divide between the film’s artistic ambitions and the shallow execution of the story it thinks it’s trying to tell. 

The film is the first in a series of standalone films meant to reinvent iconic DC Comics characters. Set in 1981, “Joker” follows Arthur Fleck, a former mental patient now living with his mother and working as an impoverished clown-for-hire with aspirations to become a stand-up comedian. However, Fleck’s dreams are hindered by his depression, social awkwardness and a condition causing him to laugh pathologically during uncomfortable moments. Meanwhile, the surrounding urban decay of Gotham City has led the billionaire Thomas Wayne (father of the Joker’s eventual archnemesis, Bruce Wayne/Batman) to announce a run for mayor, stirring even more societal unrest. Fleck is harassed while in full clown make-up by three Wayne employees during one of his laughing fits and kills them all in cold blood. This accidentally sets off a clown-inspired protest movement against the wealthy one percent wherein Fleck is hailed as a hero. The rest of the film documents Fleck’s further descent into criminality as he comes to adopt the moniker “Joker.” 

The advertising for “Joker” has not disguised the fact that the elevator pitch for the film was essentially: “What if we mashed together Robert DeNiro’s characters from Martin Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘The King of Comedy’ — but it’s the Joker!” Indeed, the film is also in no hurry to hide this conceit, lavishly recreating the late-’70s or early-’80s aesthetic of Scorsese’s work. Likewise, Robert DeNiro cameos as the talk show host that Fleck idolizes. The difference is that “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy,” troubling though parts of them might be, are actually good. 

In fairness, a lot of what doesn’t work about the film is baked into its conceptual DNA. Much has been written in the past few weeks about whether or not “Joker” is a socially irresponsible film given our current political environment. These concerns sometimes manifest in well-intentioned yet overblown “Think of the children!” handwringing, but they also raise a fair question. Do we really need another film which sympathetically explores why a disaffected white man decides to go on a killing spree? In other words, it’s not really “the children” we should think of, but rather the alt-right, men’s rights activist or incel types who have always latched onto characters like the Joker as validation for their repugnant ideologies and actions.

The Joker is a legitimately compelling character, but one that’s also really easy to misinterpret or misconstrue. Consider, for instance, Heath Ledger’s iconic interpretation of the character in “The Dark Knight.” Part of what makes that performance great is that the Joker in that film isn’t presented as a three-dimensional character, but instead as a force of nature — a diabolical, nihilistic clown meant to represent everything Batman is not. The film explicitly mocks any effort to provide the character with a sympathetic backstory by having him tell several different backstories, all of which seem equally unlikely. 

“The Dark Knight,” for all of its flaws, understands that the Joker is really only interesting if you don’t know why he is the way he is, because otherwise it necessitates that you have to explore the origins of a mass shooter — which is exactly the problem that “Joker” runs into. In fact, it’s telling that the most iconic version of the character’s backstory — Alan Moore’s comic book “Batman: The Killing Joke” — ultimately acknowledges that the sort of person who might adopt the Joker’s nihilistic worldview is neither sympathetic nor tragic but instead utterly pathetic. Nevertheless, many fans of the character miss this point entirely. They misread “The Dark Knight” and “The Killing Joke” so that the Joker may continue to validate an atrophied worldview by representing an odd admixture of tragic backstory and alpha-male posturing. These are the same people who read the fight clubs in “Fight Club” as aspirational. 

Of course, it isn’t exactly the fault of “Joker” that so many of the Joker’s fans utilize him in reprehensible ways. But the decision to make the film a sympathetic origin story suggests an ignorance of, or willful complicity in, this phenomenon on the part of the filmmakers. Moreover, if this is a story that someone felt needed to be told, surely there were better ways to go about it. Whereas the better interpretations of the character present the Joker as either pathetic or inhumanely heartless, “Joker” leans hard into the notion that people who struggle with mental health are inherently dangerous to society. Not only is this an offensive message on its own terms, but it’s all the more frustrating when you realize that the filmmakers are using Fleck’s mental illness as justification for portraying the character in a semi-sympathetic light, even when his actions are at their most unforgivable. Some fans will undoubtedly insist that the film is not sympathetic toward Fleck but rather portrays his actions with honesty and authenticity. And yet the cinematography, lighting, sound design, music, editing and performances all favor Fleck’s point of view, even when they occasionally acknowledge that his actions are monstrous. 

What’s worse is that “Joker” actually sets up a much better alternative thematic plotline on which it utterly fails to follow through. Fleck is clearly living below the poverty line and suffers at the expense of billionaire capitalists like Thomas Wayne. Thus, conceptually, the film suggests that Fleck’s decision to confront his own class oppression by killing the three Wayne employees spawns his self-actualization as the Joker. While that could make for a no less problematic story, it’s also a conceptually interesting place to start, and it doesn’t pin Fleck’s actions on his mental health. In practice, however, Fleck is never explicitly motivated by his poverty, and the film never bothers to explore the systemic problems that plague Fleck and all the protesters. “Joker” almost boldly suggests that Thomas Wayne’s wealth and privilege are directly responsible for Fleck’s financial plight and thus indirectly caused the initial three killings, but as soon as the film introduces this proposition, it backs away just as quickly. 

The result is a film that has contempt for the upper class but refuses to truly condemn it — thereby inadvertently portraying the oppressed working class as rabble rousers making a big fuss over nothing. Indeed, “Joker” unintenionally implies that Fleck’s descent into darkness has less to do with his financial woes and more to do with the women in his life not being sufficiently concerned with catering to all of his emotional needs.  

“Joker” certainly thinks it has something to say about systemic inequality and the way society treats the disenfranchised. But at the end of the day, it’s far more interested in gesturing at real-world issues than actually doing anything with them. And lest you think this makes the film “ambiguous” and thus somehow “deep,” it doesn’t. It just makes it lazy. The film’s director, Todd Phillips, recently described his desire to “sneak a real movie into the studio system under the guise of a comic book film.” This comment is exasperating precisely because trying to do experimental work within the comic book or superhero genre is laudable. After all, if this genre is to remain at the apex of Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking for the foreseeable future, directors need to have the space to do offbeat and exciting work within that template. But Phillips’ comment reeks of condescension that carries over into the film; “Joker” is imbued with a bizarre sense of elitism, insisting with every passing minute that it is a “real movie” without putting in any of the legwork that makes supposedly real movies “real.” 

“Joker” wants to be thought of as a film that thinks deep thoughts, but it’s made by filmmakers who lack any real conviction. The films of well-respected directors such as Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and David Lynch may be a touch pretentious, but at least you feel like those directors actually had something they wanted to say. Certainly, the audience is expected to participate in the process of meaning- making, but at least it feels like there might be something rewarding and productive about trying to make sense of “8 ½” or “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.” By contrast, Phillips displaces any real thinking onto the audience, utilizing the signifiers of independent art cinema as a cover for his own philosophical and ideological cowardice.