The reputation of “The Hangover” director Todd Phillips’ first serious studio effort, “Joker,” precedes itself. Depending on who you ask, the film is a pretentious meme about “what it’s like to live in a society,” a “dangerous call to arms for white men across the globe,” or an unprecedented masterpiece that feels like a holdover from a different, better era. It is none of these things—it is a subject of hot debate whether the movie is even good, but “Joker” is undoubtedly interesting. It is a film that grips you even while, structurally, it unravels at the seams.
Arthur Fleck, (Joaquin Phoenix, in an unsurprisingly excellent turn), is a rent-a-clown working in crime laden 1980’s Gotham City, bitter about the hand he has been dealt in life. After several mishaps and discoveries, Fleck begins to come apart and descend into madness, leading him to eventually don the suit and clown makeup we all know and make an appearance on a late-night talk show (hosted by Robert De Niro, also good) that prompts a mass city riot.
The best thing “Joker” has going for it is unpredictability, and this is best demonstrated by Phoenix himself. He is terrifying because you don’t know what he’s thinking or what he’s going to do next. Phoenix’s Joker is a fascinating contrast to Heath Ledger’s take of a motiveless anarchist. Phoenix’s Joker clearly has a lot on his mind, but he keeps a lid on everything, going about his day until he snaps. This is a movie that shoots for the stars, and even when it doesn’t hit, that is something worth admiring.
This a film with a screenplay that makes some strange choices. For example, Fleck enters into a relationship with a single mother in his apartment complex (Zazie Beetz). In the second scene she’s featured in, Fleck stalks her as she picks her daughter up from school. When she approaches him later that night, she says that she knows he was following her, and then indicates interest in a romantic relationship. They go on a date, and after a while it is revealed that Fleck was hallucinating the entire relationship. This is arguably the strangest choice in the entire film.
This relationship is clearly intended to be analogous to the relationship between Robert De Niro and Cybil Shephard in Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece “Taxi Driver.” In that film, De Niro’s Travis Bickle shows up at Shephard’s job, voices interest and asks her out on a date, which she accepts. The secret here is his confidence, which although it fades, is present and appealing in those early scenes.
The biggest strikes against “Joker” are the films it borrows from and the real-world politics it evokes. In writing this film, Phillips comes off as a frat-boy, pseudo-intellectual, wanting to show you how much he knows about movies by attempting to passably emulate “Taxi Driver” or “The King of Comedy,” another Scorsese masterpiece that “Joker” borrows heavily from. He also attempts to evoke the sociological and political circumstances that lead to the rise of “The Reagan Revolution,” this being in reference to a scene in the movie where a reporter is interviewing Thomas Wayne, (father of Bruce, played by Brett Cullen), and Wayne states something similar to “people in this city are angry because they are jealous of those of us who have more money than they do,” a blunt statement that almost perfectly surmises the chief issue with “Joker.” The movie references current events and better movies without actually understanding them or knowing much about them.
“Joker” will entertain, even when it repulses. The film is never boring, and in the spirit of fairness, a movie that is ambitious and lofty, but doesn’t entirely land is vastly preferable to some of the other, far safer films in multiplexes right now.
(Footnote: both the scene where Bruce Wayne’s parents die in this movie and the context leading up to the scene are groan-worthy).