The vicious circle of duty-bound readers and conversation-chasing editors which has attended the avalanche-like rollout of Todd Phillips’s Joker is symptomatic of a culture starved for zeitgeist cinema. The thinkpiece-industrial complex has already descended on this skimpy, mostly just fine movie and picked its bones clean; only for a public so surfeited with superheroes that Christopher Nolan seems like the vanguard of thematic and aesthetic ambition would Joker be received as a challenging, appointment-viewing surfacing of toxic white male misery. I can’t believe we signed over a whole season of The Discourse to a filmmaker who still thinks there’s something inherently hilarious about little people.
Joker is an origin myth, a grim and pseudo-religious “And that little boy grew up to be …” story like Batman Begins, showing how one of life’s shat-upon becomes a supervillain and a galvanizing figure for a mass movement of antisocial violence. It wants to be — and the industry, critics, and fans, in ways alternately breathless and begrudging, have taken it seriously as — a reckoning with the extremes of abjection, with the psychic trauma and social rejection that could lead someone to a nihilistic howl of laughter. But it’s far too derivative, far too wedded to its juvenile mythology, and finally far too tentative to deserve discussion on such terms.
That abjection at least takes an ideal form in Joaquin Phoenix as sad clown Arthur Fleck. Arthur — who, like John Wayne Gacy, paints his mouth with sharp north-pointing corners — has a medical condition that causes him to break out into uncontrollable laughter when upset. Phoenix lost an unhealthy amount of weight for the role; his ribs all but poke through a loose-skinned torso, which he holds at unnatural angles so that he seems permanently contorted, a full-body rictus. He looks even more down and out than the film’s circa-1981 Gotham City, where black garbage bags pile up on the sidewalk as a sanitation strike drags on.
Arthur lives with his invalid mother (Frances Conroy), who writes plaintive and unanswered letters to her onetime employer, the condescending kajillionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen); his fantasy father figure is late-night talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, superb as a smugly anodyne monoculture avatar). Arthur’s obsession with Murray and the transformative promise of fame shouts out to De Niro’s own stanning of Jerry Lewis in The King of Comedy, while his diary-of-a-madman journaling (in a childish scrawl: “I just hope my death makes more cents than my life”) and subsequent vigilantism echo De Niro in Taxi Driver. In these Martin Scorsese films, the pathology of De Niro’s characters merged with the pathology of New York City, and the world. Joker tries to merge the pathology of Phoenix with the pathology of the earlier films.
Phillips began his career by making a scuzzy G.G. Allin documentary and founding the New York Underground Film Festival before graduating to frat pack comedies. Here he gestures to seriousness with a constant dirgeful cello score by Hildur Guðnadóttir, but emits major dirtbag vibes when imagining the depravity of Joker’s milieu. He utilizes un-PC standup routines at the nightclubs Arthur visits, and invokes frequent trolling music cues (“Send in the Clowns” for its literalness, Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life” for the triumphant tone, “Rock and Roll Part 2” by imprisoned child molester Gary Glitter), which complement the fart-trombone irony of the clown prince of crime himself.
This is all pretty weak tea, but Joker largely entertains moment-to-moment, thanks to a star who captures the character’s mesmerizing pulp energy. With his stumbling-in-a-fog voice, Phoenix seems to speak, like he moves, through enormous, invisible resistance. It’s disturbing when he catches a gust of verbal eloquence or physical momentum. (He’s also a great physical comedian who can bring himself up short in a snap.) In a cheap suit and clown makeup, dancing erratically down one of the Bronx’s step streets, he seems borne along on a swift current of destructive impulses.
Those Bronx step stairs are in Highbridge, just west of Grand Concourse, the “boulevard of dreams” modeled after the Champs-Élysée and the pride of an area that was a prosperous Jewish and Italian suburb in the first half of the 20th century, before every white family save apparently the Flecks fled the city’s death spiral. The film makes heavy use of prewar apartment buildings way uptown, abandoned Brooklyn subway stations with their cracked and stained mosaic tile, and rundown Deco exteriors in Newark and Jersey City. Despite the Se7en-esque color grading, Phillilps has a feel for architecture which suggests aspiration, decrepitude, and millions of hidden lives, and harmonizes with Arthur’s grand delusions.
But there are elements of the character that are beyond even Phoenix’s abilities to sell. During Arthur’s climactic appearance on Murray Franklin’s couch, which is meant to synchronize his torment with the roiling anger of a city left to rot by contemptuous elites, Phoenix resorts to trying on different swishy voices in an effort to inject some organic disturbance into his summing up of the movie’s thesis. Pre-release, the fear was that Joker’s portrait of a pathetic, lonely man who finds his voice in violence might goad copycat lashings-out. In fact, the film channels Arthur’s rage toward a series of One-Percenters, like Wayne and Franklin, who are personally mean to him. In Arthur’s relationship with his mother — if not with his neighbor crush, an incredibly perfunctory role for Zazie Beetz — Joker at least attempts to acknowledge that a “beta male” like Arthur might transfer his self-hatred onto women. At any rate, it’s closer to being authentically fucked up about gender than it is about race, with which it barely engages.
Gotham is a mirror for received notions about urban America, and Joker, with its graffiti and news reports about “super rats” overrunning the sidewalks, evokes the lurid high-water mark of the white flight era, when tall tales of wanton lawlessness rebranded New York as “Fear City” for skittish out-of-towners. Implicit in most coverage of crime in New York in the ‘70s and ‘80s was the idea that the urban population was a problem that had to be controlled. Arthur’s first kill comes in response to subway harassment, in an obvious echo of Bernard Goetz opening fire on four young black would-be muggers on a 2 train in 1984. Here, though, the menace comes in the form of three slick-haired banker douchebros. Arthur, as an anonymous clown-painted avenger, becomes a figure of notoriety. His rampage, like Goetz’s, is splashed across the covers of Gotham tabloids, which are as alarmist and crime-obsessed as New York’s. He then becomes the totem of a clown-masked Occupy-esque protest movement.
The idea that the random murder of upper-middle-class white men on public transit in 1980s NYC would galvanize a populist movement against white elites is ahistorical and flatly ludicrous. I don’t want or need a serious consideration of white grievance from a movie about the clown who fights Batman, but given the position Joker has assumed in our national conversation, it’s disingenuous and pandering for Phillips to root through a grab bag of resentments and pick out only the least problematic, like he’s trying to find the last candy in the bag that isn’t licorice. The rebellion Joker inspires appears, behind the clown masks, to skew white and male. This is flammable material, but late in Joker, it takes the form of a subway car packed with rowdy dudes in near-identical pop culture costumes, headed downtown to commit wanton property damage. All I could think was that the entire rusting machinery of mainstream American cinema was churning and churning to get us invested in a movie about SantaCon.
Joker is in theaters now.