It’s been over a week since I saw Todd Phillips’ reimagining of the great Batman villain. I’ve been wrestling with my thoughts about it ever since. Unfortunately, nobody that I normally discuss these things with has seen it yet. I’ve pretty much been going back and forth between liking it and utterly hating it. So, the idea of writing this review has been giving me a lot of anxiety. I’ve been putting it off for as long as possible but the time has finally come. No more delays. Joker might still be dominating the box office but it’s still dividing audiences. The initial criticism has been almost drowned out by positive audience reaction but, at the same time, I think there is still plenty of negativity surrounding it. For my part, it doesn’t help that Todd Phillips is still in my bad books after his “woke culture” is killing comedy comment. I mean this is the guy who made The Hangover movies. If there’s anyone that doesn’t really understand comedy then it’s the guy who kept beating that dead horse. Still, I was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. The only way I could make my mind up about this film was to watch it. Unfortunately, it only made things worse.
What I can say with some confidence is that Joaquin Phoenix really is as wonderful as everyone it saying. The man has been known for really putting himself into his roles and that is more than apparent here. He becomes Arthur Fleck and it’s intoxicating in its own way. The way Phoenix moves is perfect. There’s such a fluid and dancerly aspect to Arthur that really mirrors his inner turmoil. Every movement and every look is considered and fits perfectly. If he gets nominated for an Oscar is wouldn’t be the worst thing. Depending on who else would be in the mix, I’m not even sure I’d begrudge him winning. Without Phoenix, this film would have been nothing.
Because it is not the central performance that ruins this film. It’s the story itself and the direction. Todd Phillps famously says he got Phoenix to star in the film by telling him that they would “sneak a real movie in the studio system under the guise of a comic-book film”. Which is so pretentious and egotistical I’m still nauseated from the first time I heard it. It really tells you everything about the film. Fine, it didn’t need to follow the same comic book movie premise but Phillips is talking a big game. Unfortunately, he’s not good enough to live up to his own hype. This film shamelessly evokes Martin Scorcese’s The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver.
On its own, this wouldn’t be a problem. It’s the fact that Todd Phillips seems to have forgotten that he isn’t Scorcese that I find so irritating. Joker is being praised for its originality but how is that possible? It’s the most derivative film I’ve ever seen. I’m still convinced that we need to get the police involved because Phillips is definitely guilty of identity fraud. Turns out he’s gone from making comedy to making Martin Scorsese films.
I don’t care that Joker isn’t like any other comic book movie. It would have been refreshing. The problem is, it’s gone so far the other way that it’s no longer entertaining. I’m all for character study and I don’t need action to keep myself invested in a film. But after the first hour or so, this film starts to collapse under the weight of its own ego. Somewhere down the line, Todd Phillips decided he wanted to make a Martin Scorsese film but Todd Phillips doesn’t have what it takes to make a Martin Scorsese film (namely being Martin fucking Scorsese). So, instead he remade two Martin Scorsese films… badly. Only problem is, he doesn’t seem to know that it’s bad. There’s such a sense of self-importance here. You can basically see Todd Phillips’ smiling smugly in the background of every scene.
This film is supposed to be criticising emptiness of society and how false people can be. This film is guilty of being both empty and false. It’s a cliche-ridden mess that uses psuedo-psychology and philosophy. Yet, there is nothing there. It just feels very juvenile. Like one big tantrum. I applaud the idea to showcase the lack of resources when it comes to mental health but Joker over-simplifies everything. Arthur has mental health issues but it is never really developed or discussed far enough. The story is basically, he had a tough life and his only course of action was murder. Yes, you feel sorry for the guy but it becomes uncomfortable how much Phillips is championing him. The film ends and you don’t know whether you’re being implored to stand up to “the man” or not. It’s a confusing mess because there are too many ideas being explored. It means nothing is given the time it needs.
Phillips just got so lost here. It’s not that he wanted to reimagine the comic book genre. He wanted to show off but he doesn’t have enough to brag about. Which is why he so desperately evokes his hero. Joker is like when those criminals take two halves of different cars and weld them together to make a new one. Then they sell them to unsuspecting people who eventually die because they are so badly made. Phillips took two Scorsese films, stuck them together, and sold them to unsuspecting people. Obviously, I’m not suggesting that anyone’s going to die. Unless it’s from boredom.
Because, let’s be honest, the film is fucking boring. It takes so long for Arthur to turn to violence and once he does the film starts to fall apart. There are some wonderful moments in the early stages of the film. There are some good moments later on but they are fewer and further between. Phillips is on more solid ground with the comedy, it’s just a shame that there are so few examples. The one that sticks out comes straight after the film’s most gruesome moment. It’s laugh-out-loud funny and shows what this film could have been had it not taken itself so bloody seriously.
It’s such as a weird film. I loved the look of it and started off being immensely pleased with it. Then it just dragged on and on. By the end I was glad it was over and so was everyone around me. Nobody in my screening seemed to be leaving on a high. Nobody was excited by the experience they’d just had. One person even shouted “thank god!” as soon as the credits started rolling. It sucked the energy out of the room. I’ve never left a cinema where everyone left feeling quite so dejected. And I’ve seen the 2016 The Three Musketeers adaptation.
Maybe the point is, the Joker didn’t need a backstory. Maybe he was more powerful a villain when we didn’t know who he was. Or maybe it would have been different if somebody had reminded Todd Phillips that he was the director of Road Trip and not Raging Bull. Maybe if the script had been better and the narrative tighter? I don’t know. What I do know, is this film was super disappointing. And ambiguous enough to make those “friend-zoned, meninists” on the internet feel justified. They’ve finally found their folk hero. It’s just a shame he’s a mentally ill clown.
Oh, and let’s not forget that this film uses a song by a convicted paedophile at a pivotal moment. Most probably so Todd Phillips can stick it to woke culture one more time. Why stop at Gary Glitter Todd? Why not bring Harvey Weinstein in too? Kevin Spacey? Bring in Woody Allen as well. That would really show those snowflakes how little you give a shit about other people. I don’t like to judge people I don’t know but I’m utterly convinced that Todd Phillips is just a huge prick.
Who is Murdocal? A casual critic who is a little bit too obsessed with pop culture. A young woman who swears and rants much more than she knows she should whilst trying to make her way in an adult world she isn't prepared for. A not as recent as she'd like literature graduate who, between job applications and subsequent rejections, has turned to the internet to fight the boredom and review the shit out of everything.
"Maybe, just maybe, I'm the faller. Every family has someone who falls, who doesn't make the grade, who stumbles, who life trips up. Maybe I'm our faller."