JokerReviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 01/23/20 06:07:00
Watching "Joker" belatedly, I understood quite clearly why it got so many Oscar nominations. For what it is, it’s gorgeously assembled, with a ragged jewel of a performance by Joaquin Phoenix at its center. The problem is, well, what it is.Joker is set in Gotham City (read: New York City when you hate it; Metropolis is New York City when it’s energizing and teeming with good culture) circa 1981, and garbage is rotting on the sidewalks in its saggy tons. Joker got eleven Oscar nods, and it deserves eight of them. The grimy, soul-grinding milieu is realized with all the talent and vision $62.5 million can buy (while we realize that a movie like this not connected to a superhero franchise would have to make do with a fraction of that bankroll), and yet aesthetically the film is built to caress the eye and ear. The first half hour or so, establishing damaged wannabe-comedian Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) and his uncompromising misery, is top-shelf filmcraft.
Unfortunately, there’s still an hour and a half to go, and Joker ends up repeating itself and lap-dancing its same handful of nihilistic points again and again. Even Phoenix eventually runs out of tricks until we can’t distinguish Arthur’s actual behavior from the iconic, narcissistic behavior (that now-famous stairway dance) in his head. We sit and diagnose Arthur: he’s a mama’s boy who suffered childhood abuse that may have rattled his brain to the point that he emits paroxysms of inappropriate laughter. The way Joker ties into the larger Bat-universe is fairly stupid; Bruce Wayne’s moneybags father Thomas (Brett Cullen, replacing Alec Baldwin and essentially doing Alec Baldwin) is an insensitive jerk, a tough-on-crime elitist who calls poor people “clowns” and is running for mayor. How is he connected to Arthur? Well, he is but he isn’t. It’s that kind of candy-ass movie, toying with big plot moves and then rescinding them.
Despite the supporting cast doing more or less what they’re asked — including Robert De Niro as a talk-show host Arthur fixates on — the movie is handed to Phoenix, and he does amazing things with his physique and voice. He commits fearlessly, and it’s a shame that people have to sit through, ultimately, a failure of a movie to see the performance. Phoenix triumphs over the material — who couldn’t? The material seems to have been conceived for him to triumph over it. The talk about Joker’s biting big chunks from Martin Scorsese, specifically Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, is a little overblown. If anything, Joker shares more DNA with Abel Ferrara’s 1979 Driller Killer, in which the cold reality of the mentally ill being dumped onto the streets due to lack of funding was more disturbing than the gory drill-killings. Same goes here: again, if someone wanted to make a real drama about such issues that had nothing to do with DC Comics, it’d have to be made for couch change. Sadly, it doesn’t much matter that the topic is addressed in a big hit, because it isn’t really addressed so much as made into background.
An army of talent has been marshaled here to fashion a beautiful piece about a pismire. It’s loaded with artistry without itself being art, and the primary reason is that Todd Phillips, its nominal director, isn’t a director. Oh, he knows how to get usable footage for fake-outrageous mainstream comedies like the Hangover trilogy. But he can’t really shape material so that it means something or earns the horrible associations it may dredge up in some viewers, and it keeps backing away from anything truly explosive. Like The Dark Knight Rises, it demonizes protest (what the hell drugs was Michael Moore on when he praised this thing for its politics?) and finally takes no stand. It just takes this rambly, inchoate semi-narrative about a fractured psyche and pushes it out there on a toxic exhaust cloud of irony. I don’t usually pick on movies for violence they may or may not inspire, but Joker is the sort of interiorized, subjective work that doesn’t show Arthur’s life for the rancid squalor it truly would be; it just tries on the kinds of grim and gritty pirouettes and outfits that appeal to real Arthur Flecks.But, unlike a true work of art (like those two Scorsese classics) that would drive me to its defense, "Joker" is all pose. It says nothing about Arthur or his victims or his brutal world. Nothing.
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