Release: October 4, 2019
Director: Todd Phillips
Writer: Todd Phillips and Scott Silver
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck/Joker, Robert De Niro as Murray Franklin, Zazie Beetz as Sophie Dumond, Frances Conroy as Penny Fleck, and Brett Cullen as Thomas Wayne
Running Time: 122 minutes
Reviews May Contain Spoilers
Arthur Fleck is a professional clown struggling to make it as a standup comic. Arthur shares an apartment with his ailing, mentally ill mother for whom he acts as something of a caretaker. Gotham, as is the case in most depictions, is a city in chaos. A hollow shell of its former self, teetering on the edge of becoming little more than a single massive slum. In the midst of the chaos, some residents have begun to rest their hopes on the shoulders of local billionaire philanthropist Thomas Wayne. Arthur’s mother, a frail woman suffering from severe delusions, fills Arthur’s head with stories of she and Wayne’s secret love affair and he, Arthur, the child who was spawned as a result. In the bathroom of a local theater, Arthur confronts Thomas Wayne about Wayne’s alleged paternity. Wayne informs Arthur that he is, in fact, adopted, and that Penny had simply been an employee of the Wayne family whilst the adoption happened. Angry, but obviously intrigued, Arthur goes to a local psychiatric facility where his mother had spent time and looks into her records. He finds evidence of his adoption, as well as newspaper clippings and other writings detailing the horrible abuse that he suffered as a child at the hands of his mother. As these events play out, Arthur’s mental state gradually deteriorates, leading him to concoct elaborate fantasies about Sophie Dumond, the young single mother who lives down the hall, as well as local talkshow host Murray Franklin. A murderous impulse also emerges in Arthur, leading to the killing of three yuppies, one of his coworkers, his mother, Sophie and her daughter, and ultimately Murray Franklin. Arthur’s antics lead him to become a rallying symbol for the criminal element in Gotham with the film culminating in a scene depicting the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne by a clown masked Joe Chill.
There are a couple of things to like about Joker. First off, the acting is top notch. While Phoenix and De Niro are clearly the main draw here, there is not a truly weak performance anywhere to be found. The flick is something of a visual homage to the late 70s/early 80s output of Martin Scorsese, and the filmmakers definitely did a good job capturing the look and some of the atmosphere of those films. A lot of stink and a lot of hype was raised over this flick, but, I have to tell you, folks, I just don’t get it. I think Joker benefitted from the current, and arguably long overdue, ideological battle currently going on in the United States. Much of the most vociferous criticism of this film came from people on the political left. They harped and shrieked on about this movie pandering to “white rage” or “white fragility” or whatever nonsense buzzwords trust fund socialists are screaming at the moment to one up each other on the old Twitter. That this was some piece of cinema pandering to right wingers and phantom nazis. I didn’t find it to be that. What I saw was a perfect encapsulation of everything that is wrong with current year Hollywood. We have a cynical attempt to cash in on a current trend. I am not buying for one second that the first draft of this script was in any way, shape, or form tied to the Batman universe. This was likely a middling crime thriller picture that some studio suit insisted that they shoehorn some comic book elements into in an attempt to make a low budget cash grab. I’m not gonna fault them for it, they brought in one billion dollars against a production budget somewhere between fifty-five and seventy million dollars. Its tone is drab and depressing. It is a collection of mostly unlikeable characters that continues modern entertainment’s obsession with bleak nihilism. The character with which we are supposed to empathize, Arthur, is a cold blooded nihilist who takes pleasure in murder. Perhaps the most insulting element comes during the film’s climax, when Arthur is on Murray Franklin’s television show being interviewed. We spend over an hour watching a man with no real catastrophic mental illness kill a succession of people in cold blood, and then he turns to the Murray, a surrogate for the audience at this point, and does breaks into a “blame society” whine straight out of the film noir hack jobs of Dalton Trumbo.
I did not find Joker to be a good film by any stretch of the imagination. I am also of the mind that many of my counterparts on the political right who profess to have enjoyed this film are doing so simply to “own” or “dunk” or whatever it is they’re saying these days on the whining, simpering left. I’m certainly no fan of political correctness nonsense. I remember the last time we had an infatuation with it in the late 90s. I hated it then, I hate it now. I agree with Todd Phillips that “woke” nonsense is killing, or at the very least pressing its iron boot down on comedy. Modern comedies are an absolute bore and a chore to get through. There is more humour to be found in listening to hipster communists try to defend the Holodomor or spin the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact than there is to be found in the average modern “comedy” film. That being said, the solution to fighting woke nonsense isn’t to essentially admit defeat by cranking out some depressing, nihilistic dreck. Rather the solution is to make a comedy. A raunchy, vulgar, down punching comedy. It may have been a little bit of a chore to get financed. Phillips may have had to go far outside of the Hollywood system to secure funding. However, something tells me that it would have probably paid off in the end. It strikes me, watching what has flopped hard in recent years, that there is an audience hungry for content that is “Un-P.C.” If, as an artist, you hate political correctness and “woke” trash so much, help to kill it. This flick is essentially rolling over and admitting defeat.