Joker probably isn’t going to inspire any mass shooters, but Todd Phillips’ latest movie has managed to create a protagonist that we react to in the same way. What made the Joker this way? Was it mental illness? Was it bullying? Was it lack of proper mental health funding? Was it easy access to dangerous firearms? And so the question surrounding the movie has become, oddly, not whether this is a compelling piece of art but: How can we protect our nation’s children from homicidal clowns?
Joker is a beautifully shot, wonderfully compelling movie that ends in horrific manner. That it’s initially so easy to love is exactly what makes it so capable of disturbing and nauseating us in the end; we couldn’t be queasy if we weren’t invested. Is that… bad? In a way, it merely rubs our noses in something movies like this generally soft pedal. That the protagonist we spent so much of the story sympathizing with (and getting a vicarious thrill out of) is… actually a pretty messed up guy! Who knew!
In a way, Joker is a lot like that old Saturday Night Live sketch where Steve Buscemi throws a mad hatter party, and while all the other “mad hatters” are having a deliciously silly time talking about wearing socks on their feet, Buscemi’s character pipes up about how he likes to put cigar butts out on his penis and makes racecars out of his own poop. Or, if you haven’t seen that one, the one about the convention of “evil” inventors, who have invented shrink rays and freezing guns, until The Rock shows up and horrifies them with his invention of a robot that molests children. “What? I thought we were talking about evil inventions here,” The Rock’s character says. “Mussolini used to force-feed people castor oil until they literally died of diarrhea. I mean that’s gotta be where the goalposts are, am I crazy?”
Joker is, essentially, Robochomo. It operates on a level of realness people neither wanted nor were expecting. “What, I thought you said this guy was supposed to be violent and disturbed!” you can imagine Phillips pleading.
And this seems to be more a problem of imposed expectations than a problem with the movie itself. Joker‘s biggest problem isn’t that it glorifies violence or offers a blueprint to potential incel terrorists (I don’t think it does, at least not compared to a million other films, I mean holy shit did you see Eli Roth’s Death Wish remake?). Its biggest problem is that it was made in an era where the market required that it tie in to a comic book franchise. That alone saddles it with the baggage of countless separate stories and creates an expectation that this is going to be the kind of party where we wear socks on our hands, not the kind where we put cigars out on our penises.
Joaquin Phoenix and Todd Phillips clearly wanted to make Taxi Driver (*deep breath* Fight Club, Falling Down, King Of Comedy, Network, Death Wish, First Blood…) while the studio wanted something at least tangentially connected to Batman. They compromised. The recent, much-cited Vanity Fair piece quotes Todd Phillips telling Joaquin Phoenix to think of the film as a heist movie. “We’re gonna take $55 million from Warner Bros. and do whatever the hell we want,” Phillips reportedly told Phoenix.
What they wanted, along with Phillips’ co-writer, Scott Silver, clearly, was to make a gritty, ’70s/early ’80s-style movie about a mistreated loner who eventually gets fed up and can’t take it anymore. That general arc is nothing new, of course, and conscious homages to Taxi Driver, King of Comedy, Dog Day Afternoon, etc., abound in Joker.
Set in Gotham, which is plainly New York during one of its many famous garbage strikes, Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a loner with a disorder that makes him laugh at inopportune times (he carries a laminated card to explain) who lives with his weird mom (Frances Conroy from Six Feet Under), and works as a clown for a company that hires out clowns. Our endless collective fascination with this old, dangerous, pre-Giuliani New York seems to stem at least in part from our collective nostalgia for a world where blue collar jobs could support middle-class lifestyles. Joker is set at a time when that world was crumbling, but even so, the idea of a clown basically showing up to a clown union office every morning, with clown locker rooms and ball-busting clown coworkers (notably HBO’s all-star bit player Glenn Fleshler as Arthur’s predatory frenemy, Randall, and Leigh Gill as Randall’s little person punching bag) is downright enchanting. Don’t even think of picking up that squirting flower if you don’t have your Clown Guild card or we will shut! This! Entire birthday party! Down!
Most of the movie is like that. Todd Phillips’ transition into Junior Scorsese, begun in 2016’s War Dogs, achieves full flower here, helped along by a hollow-eyed, 50-pounds lighter Joaquin Phoenix, our most mesmerizing actor and the platonic ideal of asymmetrical ugly beauty even before the weight loss (incidentally, how the hell does a guy who’s already a chain-smoking vegan just lose 50 pounds at will?). Not to mention an equally perfect supporting cast: Zazie Beetz, Shea Wigham, Bill Camp, and Robert De Niro, playing the late-night talk show host Fleck is obsessed with. It’s like Phillips raided HBO’s prestige A-Team and regurgitated The Deuce meets One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
Fleck dabbles in stand up, gets robbed by neighborhood kids, and abandoned by his social worker (budget cuts) until he finally goes off his meds and then off the reservation. All of it compelling, Joker really only stumbles when it realizes, too late, that it has to be about Batman. This character who should just be a guy, is awkwardly forced, thanks to commercial realities, into becoming an icon. That‘s the only thing in it that makes it feel propagandistic — the idea that the main character will one day carry on, that he’ll become a symbol. It forces him to become at once Howard Beale from Network and the Las Vegas shooter. Which is an awkward mix. We don’t like the idea that people who murder innocent human beings could inspire movements, and rightly so.
And that makes Joker‘s ending kind of a shock and a bummer. But if you take a step back, it’s also kind of great. It’s like watching Todd Phillip show up to the convention of “gritty” comic book directors and shock all of them into stunned silence. “What? Pretty twisted, right?”