Is Joker a dangerous film? That’s the question on many minds amid warnings from the U.S. Army and New York Police Department about potential Joker-inspired violence at theatrical screenings.
But the actual movie, directed by Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Phoenix, is more pretentious than provocative. It’s clear that Phillips and Phoenix want audiences to believe their version of Batman’s most famous villain is shockingly different than what’s come before. This artistic desperation, however, leads to the exact opposite of shock, thanks to repetitious concepts, muddled politics and beyond-obvious allusions to Taxi Driver.
The story concerns Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a wannabe stand-up comedian who still lives with his mother, Penny, in the fictional city of Gotham. Through a monotonous series of not-so-subtle sequences, you learn Fleck leads a miserable life. He gets beaten up by kids, he can’t control his laughter and he has serious mommy and daddy issues. With on-the-nose imagery—such as Fleck repeatedly walking up a tall flight of steps—Phillips bangs the audience over the head with material that’s supposed to make people feel sorry for the man who becomes the Joker.
Because of the film’s blatant attempts to be perceived as a legitimate sob story, it’s tempting to call Joker a laughable production, but that would be giving it too much credit. In one scene, Penny asks her troubled son, “Don’t you have to be funny to be a comedian?” Indeed, Phoenix’s performance is rarely witty or ironic, unlike previous depictions of the character (Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, Heath Ledger). The actor’s nervous leg shaking, awkward dancing, emaciated frame and timid voice might scream “Oscar nomination,” but Phoenix is just as cartoonish as his predecessors. The villain’s merely unfunny now.
The lack of humor suggests that Phillips, known for dumb comedies like Old School and The Hangover, reasoned he must cleanse himself of his past to be taken seriously as an artist. His desire to craft a drama and not a comedy—almost as if Phillips believes the two should rarely, if ever, meet—results in several embarrassingly amateurish creative decisions. Phillips seems to take from other artists for no apparent reason other than to look sophisticated, whether he’s borrowing from Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), which originally tied Joker to Batman’s very existence, or Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. In fact, Scorsese inspires Phillips so much that Phillips recreates the violent climax of Taxi Driver for one of Joker’s kills. This reference, like all of the others, is so obvious that the violence registers as a contrivance. Joker, a terrible joke of a film, treats imagery and emotion like cold products.