Skip to main content

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker
(2019)

(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

But the politics… The proliferation of think pieces on Joker might give one the impression it heralded the implosion of western civilisation, vying even with Trump and Boris for column inches. How it’s legitimising and enforcing the positions of – apparently, who knew? –millions of basement-dwelling, enraged incels, all poised to take out their self-hatred on the “norms” at the pull of a trigger. How it “advocates” all the things progressive society hoped it had strong-armed to the door with marching orders. And how, thanks to Todd Phillips shooting his sensitive mouth off, it stands by association in opposition to anyone intent on curbing artistic and more especially comedic freedoms, the righteous Twitterati intent on expunging such unexpurgated voices. All of which, well, yeah. Inevitable hyperbole on all sides. Wade through all that, and you reach the important question; is Joker any good? Does any of the hype(rbole) actually match up to the movie itself? Some of it.

Joker encounters the obstacle that, even as a non-blockbuster, differently-positioned alt-comic book movie, it is selling itself as that thing. It can’t just be a little project to be embraced or ignored, not with the full might of the Warner marketing department behind it. When it was first announced, back when Marty Scorsese – he of “MCU isn’t cinema” infamy – was, for a few days, attached as an executive producer, it was greeted extremely dubiously. This was, after all, off the back of the last Joker iteration, and the idea – admittedly not without some justification up until then – that the Joker in and of himself spelled success, nearly as much as a nippleless Batman himself, was seen as simple straightforward cynicism on Warner’s part. That combined with a laissez-faire, throw anything at the wall and see what sticks casualness to projects in the wake of the collapse of a “coherent” Snyder-led DC-verse. There was equal parts intrigue – Joaquin Phoenix, who had turned down Dr Strange and was really not interested in commercial for commercial fare’s sake – and suspicion – how could Todd Phillips, who tended towards broad or gross-out comedy be planning something artistically inclined? Case in point: War Dogs. Just how wannabe Scorsese was that (and you can bet it had The Wolf of Wall Street comparisons all over its pitch meetings)? So really, it could have gone either way in terms of how it was appraised; it could have been another Suicide Squad.

As such, I’ll readily admit I needed persuading. And I say that as someone who actually liked The Hangover Part II. None of the trailers really convinced me this was going to be a movie of serious artistic accomplishment, impressive as moments – and Phoenix, obviously – appeared. And then the initial outpouring of critics’ raves (a Golden Lion is not to be sniffed at). And then the backlash. All of it kindling to an event picture. As in: gotta see to have an opinion. Most comic book movies aren’t watercooler events in that sense.

The problems I have with Joker essentially goes back to those initial message-board responses, the push-pull of Phoenix and Phillips working together. On the one hand, Phoenix gives the kind of fully immersive, absorbing performance you expect: a cracked actor, or clown, undergoing fractures of mind and body (his physical contortions are as alarming as any schisms in his psyche). On the other, Phillips, who is, as comedy directors go, top flight, one of the few who can lend a cinematic lustre to what is traditionally a rather four-square approach to the genre, simply isn’t up to that level. Indeed, he even undermines the central performance somewhere around the mid-section by allowing his star’s antics to close in on repetitive schtick. Phillips is unable to lend the camera a subjectivity that would really entangle you with Arthur Fleck’s perspective. The way Scorsese does with Travis Bickle. Or even Aronofsky does with Nina Sayers. And I think that’s because he doesn’t really know his protagonist; at best, he has a clutch of ideas and grievances he has thrown in a blender and tipped out, sploshing across the screen where they may.

Which means it’s all very well having such an overview in principal, but whether or not the entire movie is actually in Arthur Fleck’s own head – as the final scene in Arkham might suggest – is only so interesting. Although, the scene where he runs into a glass door after brushing off the cops intent on questioning him suggests that if he is, his psyche is so self-gnawing that it can’t even allow his fantasy self a moment of cool. There’s only ever an out-of-his-reach feel to Phillips clutching at the psychological traumas Arthur is going through, his playing the role of devoted son and possible disinherited millionaire’s bastard and fantasy boyfriend of his neighbour.

There’s no additional interest to a delusion within a delusion if none of the delusions are that compelling in the first place – although it might at least explain how Arthur leaps from where he is at the end of the movie to a criminal mastermind of Batman lore, as in: he doesn’t. And the movie’s deep dive into Wayne family continuity doesn’t suddenly become a flash of brilliance if its only significance is that he’s a disturbed guy obsessed with the fame of the Wayne family and (perhaps) the death of Bruce’s parents.

Of course, one might also draw dots between a guy who talks unprompted to kids on buses, makes friends with a single mum and grabs at a boy outside the gates of his father’s mansion, and his final transformative serenading himself to Gary Glitter’s Rock ‘n’ Roll (Part 2), surely the picture’s most transgressive moment and one that can be no coincidence. But those connections don’t really make it daring either. Quite the contrary: it’s simply a movie that’s self-consciously fishing and not having the cojones, through casting its net of interpretations sufficiently wide, to have an actually coherent point of view.

So while Phoenix sustains Arthur’s interior life, Phillips fails him simply by not having the tools to keep up. On the other hand, the director is fully versant and entirely at ease and accomplished with the “real world” elements of the story. Of the squalor of 1981 NYC, of a mentally-ill guy having the shit kicked out of him in back alleys or on the subway, and of the catharsis of turning upon his oppressors. Sure, the anti-rich sentiment is only ever window-dressing in its sub-V for Vendetta masked movement – a stretch that Arthur would have inspired it, sure, but then any such stretch has the instant get-out of it being an insane person’s imaginings – but in fairness, that cynicism and the uncertainty attached to that theme are addressed head-on during his Murray Franklin show appearance, where Arthur both rejects the political element and embraces it in his vilification of Gotham’s richest benefactor.

And the Network-esque death on air is effective simply because it’s a tried-and-tested shock tactic, even as far back as Joe Dante homaging it for a werewolf transformation. Phillips was accomplished with the seedy viscera you could almost – but wouldn’t want to – touch in The Hangovers, and it’s the same here, with the squalid apartment building and the ever-screaming neighbour you never see, shouting rebukes to Arthur’s involuntary laughter.

Phillips handles the explosions of violence with relish, and he has taken the trouble to ensure that everyone on the receiving end of Arthur’s outbursts is culpable in some way. One might argue this is exactly how a locked-up fantasist would play out their projections, but it also represents the sculpting of the anti-hero in the manner of someone actually enamoured of Travis Bickle’s exploits. You can have a performance telling one story, and a director simultaneously saying one thing while depicting another, and sometimes those things can co-exist, but the greater risk is that you end up signalling that you have no idea what you’re actually saying, if anything. The entire movie strikes me as having a cake-and-eat-it approach – it’s even set in the same year that someone obsessed with Taxi Driver committed an attempted presidential assassination – which means it’s never quite anything; it lacks a singularity of vision that comes from a “true” auteur (even when that true auteur is intentionally offering ambiguity of interpretation).

Consequently, I was most engaged by the last half hour of Joker, when it stopped playing rather feeble games with Arthur’s imaginings and got down to him transforming himself into a masked, nominally empowered alter ego (at least, until the last couple of minutes). I suspect my view of the film will coalesce more with a second viewing, but I have the feeling it may simply confirm a rather empty experience, rich of environment and impressive of performance, but ultimately superficial, directly because of its purported depth, which amounts to a grab bag of societal decay, opportunistic political swipes and references to much better movies made by a guy who doesn’t like comic book movies. I don’t feel Phillips feels Arthur, however much Phoenix does. Certainly, if either he or Phoenix back down from a no-sequel policy, they’re likely to expose that these really were the Joker’s new clothes.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983)
(SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. That doesn’t mea…

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…

You can’t keep the whole world in the dark about what’s going on. Once they know that a five-mile hunk of rock is going to hit the world at 30,000 miles per hour, the people will want to know what the hell we intend to do about it.

Meteor (1979)
(SPOILERS) In which we find Sean Connery – or his agent, whom he got rid of subsequent to this and Cuba – showing how completely out of touch he was by the late 1970s. Hence hitching his cart to the moribund disaster movie genre just as movie entertainment was being rewritten and stolen from under him. He wasn’t alone, of course – pal Michael Caine would appear in both The Swarm and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure during this period – but Meteor’s lack of commercial appeal was only accentuated by how functional and charmless its star is in it. Some have cited Meteor as the worst movie of his career (Christopher Bray in his book on the actor), but its sin is not one of being outright terrible, rather of being terminally dull.

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016)
(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ (or Zootopia as our American cousins refer to it; the European title change being nothing to do with U2, but down to a Danish zoo, it seems, which still doesn’t explain the German title, though) creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). It’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

So credit’s due to co-directors Byron Howard (Bolt, Tangled) and Rich Moore (of The Simpsons, Futurama, and latterly, the great until it kind of rests on its laurels Wreck-It-Ralph) and Jared Bush (presumably one of the th…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

I can't lie to you about your chances, but... you have my sympathies.

"Predalien" The Alien-Predator-verse ranked
Fox got in there with the shared universe thing long before the current trend. Fortunately for us, once they had their taste of it, they concluded it wasn’t for them. But still, the Predator and Alien franchises are now forever interconnected, and it better justifies a ranking if you have more than six entries on it. So please, enjoy this rundown of the “Predalien”-verse. SPOILERS ensue…
11. Alien vs. Predator: Requiem (2007)
An almost wilfully wrongheaded desecration of both series’ legacies that attempts to make up for AVP’s relative prurience by being as transgressive as possible. Chestbursters explode from small children! Predaliens impregnate pregnant mothers! Maternity wards of babies are munched (off-screen admittedly)! It’s as bad taste as possible, and that’s without the aesthetic disconnect of the Predalien itself, the stupidest idea the series has seen (and that includes the newborn), one that was approved/encouraged by ra…

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …