Prior to seeing Joker, it was nearly impossible to avoid the discussion of Joker if you are someone like me who spends time on the Internet. You are reading this on the Internet, so I’m guessing you know what I’m talking about. Will it embolden people to violence? Is it a sharp critique of society today? Can Todd Phillips transition to serious filmmaking? Blah… blah… blah… So much chatter. The film had already gone through six or seven cycles of takes before it even was released to be seen by the public.
Admittedly, I was a little scared walking into my screening. An armed security guard was posted outside, I spent a good chunk of the first several minutes checking the exits, and I was even more aware of every sound being made by audience members (a thing I am already hyper aware of). But also I was a little scared of finding out where on the great cultural divide that is Joker I would land on. Walking out, I had to face the realization my take was the absolute worst one. In our polarizing time for a polarizing film, how I feel about the film is exactly wrong for getting clicks. My feeling of the film is one of almost total apathy.
I was not wowed. I was not offended. I was bored. The film wants to break free of the comic book movies mold but merely exists as a pale imitation of another mold, the one perfected by Martin Scorsese in the 1970s and 80s. Phillips wants us to be impressed he took the Clown Prince of Crime and made him serious, but he isn’t the first and won’t be the last to do so. Its subversions of comic book movie tropes are not interesting or novel, and neither is take on the psychodrama, playing too broad for either goal.
This iteration of Batman’s arch nemesis, played by a totally committed Joaquin Phoenix, lives at home with his mother (Frances Conroy) and works as a clown, though he dreams of being a standup comedian. Also, he has an undefined mental illness making him delusional and spontaneously break out in laughter. As an isolated outsider with issues, he is prone to being harassed and attacked by passers by and coworkers. People like his mother and a social services counselor (Sharon Washington) do not really listen or help with his troubles. He is an isolated, mentally ill person in a society like Gotham City that does not have a great history of helping those in need. So, naturally, he lashes out. Violently. You know, like the Joker.
As a piece of storytelling, radical would not be one of the words I’d use to describe it. In terms of mental illness, this is about as deep as M. Night Shyamalan’s Split. Maybe even less so than that low bar. I do understand many of the concerns though held by people who think there are a number of people going to see the film who would see themselves too much in the titular character and maybe think acting like him would help. Had a more skillful and stylish filmmaker been making it, I could see that even more. However, you can only show the Joker dancing in slow motion so many times before even those delusional people get bored too.
What I will commend Phillips on is his commitment to location shooting and use of celluloid. I was treated to a gorgeous 70mm print of the film in my screening, and the Gotham by way of 1970s New York does feel like a grimy, tactile place, so if anyone is the true success story of Joker, it is production designer Mark Friedberg. And the choice to shoot on film helps sell the period illusion very well. So often digitally shot period films only enhance the artifice of the production. The reason being we only have seen the accurate contemporary of periods through actual film. Our eyes just trust it more.
I wish I could bring to you a scorching hot take about Joker, but I am sorry you will just have to travel to hundreds, if not thousands, of other places online for those because everyone has them. Quite frankly, I think the film isn’t unique or challenging enough to warrant those highly divisive positions. Sure, it’s rather handsomely produced (by handsome I do mean gross handsome, if that contradiction makes sense), but content-wise, it isn’t shocking when it wants to be or deep when it wants to be in. The film confuses seriousness for depth and specificity, but this is just as broad as any Marvel Studios film. Just with a scum bum at its center.
Oh, yeah. Robert De Niro is in this. He barely factors in at all.
Categories: New Releases
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