The beauty of films about superheroes and cultural icons, and/or adapted from popular works, is that you’ve got a ready-made audience, but more importantly, potential viewers know what game they’re stepping into. Joker, for good or ill, certainly wants the former, but is playing rather fast and loose with the latter.
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a troubled guy, and while he has an unequal share of everyman problems, he also has a lot of prescriptions for his psychological issues. He also exists in a Gotham City that is seemingly falling apart. A garbage worker strike is causing problems you can easily imagine, and a budget crisis sees the city cutting services left and right.
Part of the overall “construction” of Joker stems from Arthur’s work as a clown, and his dream of being a stand-up comic, but it mostly comes down to the system endlessly flailing at a guy after taking away his meds. None of this is helped by inserting Arthur into a foreboding urban backdrop that has the fight between the haves and the have nots leaving the city crumbling under its own weight.
The film paints a vivid, and even a beautifully dark portrait, and at times Phoenix is a wonder to watch, but in any sense in which films are to be judged above and beyond a series of pictures Joker leaves a lot to be desired. It isn’t, except in the utterly boring sense that it technically is, about Joker at all, and writer/director Todd Phillips belabors every aspect of his narrative as though he is imparting some glorious and esoteric truth upon the masses he doesn’t think much of.
Arthur isn’t simply beaten down by the system, living a depressing life in virtual squalor, he is literally beaten down, harassed nonsensically by his boss, and given a social worker who doesn’t listen to him and shrugs off the insane ramblings in his journal. He isn’t vaguely “crazed” or have psychopathic tendencies, he has a dozen drugs trying to keep his varied (and unnamed) psychological conditions in check, hallucinates, and has pseudobulbar affect so we can get his laughing on board. He isn’t simply a victim, he’s a victim a hundred times over, and ultimately becomes the victim of everyone, and from angles even he couldn’t see coming.
While this alternate Joker origin, the one in which he isn’t a “villain” already and has no ability to be any kind of mastermind, criminal or otherwise, is one that dangles a lot of potential, our story here negates everything the Joker has always been, and even its own effort by the time it’s done. Where Joker has long managed to force audiences to question, or at least discuss, the madness inherent in ethics and morality while putting a spectacularly creepy face on dastardly machinations, this Joker transcends evil and even villainy altogether.
In much the way Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises loses itself under the weight of its societal klaxon, becoming only accidentally a Batman film, Joker is more concerned with delivering its punchline (in an all-time great among stagy, ineffective scenes) than a character that makes sense or a road that ultimately leads anywhere. The scenery is lovely and if Phoenix is, in fact, portraying precisely what Phillips wanted then he’s a genius, but pure crazy is boring and funneling it through a kind of hyperbolic ethos so you can make a political statement as daring as “leaving mental patients to their own devices is bad” doesn’t change that.