How does an empty balloon pop very loudly, over and over?
Comic book movies are big business these days. Decades of storylines and characters are being mined for content, pushing into sometimes obscure directions. Yet major studios are risk averse at best. So, returning to a relatively well-known character played so memorably by actors like Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger in the past seems a sure thing. This time around?
Ostensibly a character study of Arthur Fleck / Joker (Joaquin Phoenix), pushed to horrific and violent acts by a society that does not care for him, Todd Phillip’s Joker is like one of those people you meet at a party. They are full of loud commentary about the ills of the world, but a few moments into the conversation you realise there is little substance to any of their rantings. The superficial, juvenile nature of their thoughts does not stop them, though, because they are convinced of their superiority to those who do not see things in the same way.
And this is Joker. Clues were offered by the director before the film’s release. He bemoaned what he called ‘woke culture’, a kind of political correctness critical of his broad films, such as The Hangover franchise. In opposition he was going to sneak a serious film into cinemas in the guise of a comic book film. But amongst the nice cinematography and gritty production design reminiscent of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and King of Comedy (the two superior films referenced in numerous ways throughout), this film has an empty core. Phillips has clearly studied Scorsese’s films, but the lessons he has learnt are uncertain. Because of this, maybe Joker’s most successful act is that the film’s vagueness tricks you into searching for deeper motives and thoughtfulness where none exist. That Fleck’s violent acts go viral seems unlikely in the film’s 80s context where the internet and mobile phones do not exist. That such a citizen movement is so quickly formed is not supported by the script. One moment treated as a major twist by the unsubtle soundtrack and a montage of flashbacks is telegraphed so clearly beforehand that I was dumbfounded the film plays it as a major reveal.
Amongst some of the tropes of activism, including angry mobs stirred into protest and welfare programs for people who are mentally ill curtailed, the film is ultimately imprecise about any coherent thematic drive. The classism (‘Kill the Rich’) that pops up in the film plays as satirical of equality movements. You could argue it reveals such movements to be vapid angry reactionism inspired by the actions of people who are struggling with mental illness. But while that seems consistent with the director’s pre-release interview answers, that could be drawing a long bow. It is hard to say that this film has any agenda beyond ‘society bad’. And that may be a few words too many.
It might have been the appearance of a kind of intellectual position that drew a high-powered cast (Joaquin Phoenix, Robert de Niro, Zazie Beetz) to this project. But their earnest efforts have been squandered in this major misfire. Phoenix’s portrayal of the downtrodden Fleck has drawn applause in some quarters. My viewing companion whispered over the credits, “At least his performance wasn’t one note.” To me it was two note at best, veering between laughing and crying. Oh, and some inexplicable dancing as well. Are you getting the picture that this film is a bit of an incoherent mess?
So maybe Phillips has achieved his aim. If he wanted to confound those who value thoughtfulness in cinema, then he has hit that target successfully. If he wanted to annoy rather than inspire, then the Oscar is his. But if he intended to deliver a comprehensible, lucid commentary about…anything, then he should return to the drawing board. Joker is not that film.
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