Review: JOKER 'Pretentious, Grim and Superfluous' (5/10)

Credit: Warner Bros.
Credit: Warner Bros.

Directed by Todd Phillips
Screenplay by Todd Phillips and Scott Silver
Starring Joaquin Phoenix
Produced by Todd Phillips, Bradley Cooper and Emma Tillinger Koskoff
‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

At this point, Joker feels inevitable. Your co-workers have been talking about it. Joaquin Phoenix’s face is plastered on bus stops and in subway stations. The news cycle is abuzz with director/co-writer Todd Phillips defending the film against pushback from “woke culture.” It won Venice Film Festival. Now, you’re reading this review.

The narrative around Joker is that it is a capital "F" Film and that’s what’s going to separate it from all the other comic book dreck that’s out there. But at its heart, it’s nothing more than a shallow, cynical, mirthless take on an iconic character.

Make no mistake, Joaquin Phoenix gives this film his all. His flutteringly unhinged performance as Arthur Fleck, the man who will become the Joker, is physical and foreboding. Phoenix’s gnarled body and pained laughter have a magnetic quality to them, drawing the audience into the gritty realism of Phillips' 1970s Martin Scorsese pastiche of Gotham. There’s a specificity to his work here that sets him apart from previous Jokers like Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger. But when he really gets going in the film’s final act, it’s impossible not to notice the flourishes that are little homages to the character’s legacy on film.

Credit: Warner Bros.

But the script and the editing fails Phoenix. Weird choices abound. Many of them are designed to add some stakes to the proceedings but all the characters feel like cardboard cutouts that Phoenix is forced to act around. Phillips is so concerned with creating a Serious Film that he doesn’t realize when Joker slips into self parody. Over-the-top music cues and slow zooms highlight Phillips' ability to craft moments that feel important but they reveal just how weightless this whole story is.

This is a movie about nothing that is saying nothing and wants you to think that was the whole point by leaning into some moody teenager grade nihilism in the final act. This is not a poignant, adult film despite its R rating but it checks all the visual boxes of those types of films so it will pull the wool over people’s eyes. Phillips doesn’t really want anything to do with comic book movies but he wants to deconstruct them. The problem is that he doesn’t have anything interesting or clever to say.

Credit: Warner Bros.

Pinning down what Joker is about is a tough task. Maybe it’s a movie about how society fails mentally ill people. Maybe it’s really about why those people become monsters. But it might also be about how class differences create a societal tension that threatens to boil over at any moment. Or maybe it’s about how Todd Phillips feels creatively stifled by the current political climate. It could be about none of these things or all of them really; Phoenix’s Joker very plainly states that he doesn’t care about anything either way. Phillips never really explores any of these ideas in earnest enough to give them any sort of tangible impact on the film. Two hours of a film go by and in the end, Phillips’ big takeaway is the same as the Frank Sinatra tune that plays over the credits: “That’s life.”

There’s probably a good Joker movie out there somewhere but this isn’t it. It’s too divorced from what makes the character truly compelling - this Joker is neither funny or scary, he’s mostly just kind of sad and weird. It almost begrudgingly reminds us that Joker is a Batman character in the most cliche ways possible. It is pretentious, grim and superfluous. But it will do well at the box office and likely during awards season so the joke’s on us, I guess.

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