Early buzz on Joker made frequent mention of a guy named Martin Scorsese, a film director you may have heard of, though not one who’s ever actually directed any films called Joker. Partly the comparison stems from the aesthetic of this new grimdark pseudo-origin for Batman’s nemesis, which is set in the ballpark of 1981 in a Gotham that looks suspiciously like the New York of Scorsese’s Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. Partly it’s the theme, too, I suppose, as Scorsese’s obvious preoccupation with insecure males and violence fits Joker‘s bill pretty well. And partly people simply love saying “it’s just like ______!” when a new movie comes out. Heck, the last Joaquin Phoenix movie we reviewed (the phenomenal You Were Never Really Here) discussed exactly that: people said it was “just like Taxi Driver!”
It wasn’t, of course, and Joker isn’t really like Taxi Driver, either. But I’m willing to bet Todd Phillips — Joker‘s actual director — isn’t exactly bummed at the comparison. If anything he’s consciously invited it, crafting Joker as a
rip-off spiritual offspring of Marty’s in more ways than one. We might jump to Taxi Driver because of the interchangeable logline — unstable loner is shunned by society and devolves into madness as a result — but the shout-outs to Scorsese’s King of Comedy are even more explicit. Robert De Niro was in Phoenix’s shoes for that one, playing the failed comedian obsessed with Jerry Lewis’s talk show host, but in Joker he fills the exact seat Lewis filled in King. Now may be a good time to note that subtlety is not one of Joker‘s strengths.
Phoenix, though, is incredible. He’s grotesque, emaciated, disjointed. My esteemed seatmate leaned over to me early in the screening and whispered “what’s that lump on his shoulder? He has a lump.” I assured her it was just his shoulder. But Phoenix’s character work is so intricate here, simultaneously dependent on the physical weirdness of his bony frame and completely free of it. There are moments when you do feel for Arthur, when Phoenix brings a spellbinding brand of pathetic, downtrodden helplessness to the fore. There are, conversely, moments where the rage and evil in Phoenix’s glare are truly cutting, making Arthur evaporate into that sadistic clown known as the Joker. The film is absolutely at its best when those two moments collide, when we’re simultaneously compassionate toward this character and scared shitless by him.
Which isn’t to say that Joker really asks us to pity what amounts to a murdering terrorist, thankfully. Fact is, I’m not convinced Joker is really asking us for much at all, apart from curiosity over that lump on Arthur’s body that’s definitely gotta be his shoulder. It’s tough to imagine Joker without Joaquin Phoenix…but if we could imagine that, the ensuing discussion could probably be wrapped up during a commercial break. Joker‘s script broaches the concept of a mentally unstable individual being actively abandoned by society, but it never gets around to moving that ball downfield. Half of the film is a loosely-plotted trajectory of Arthur into Joker, and the other half — if I may be permitted only slight exaggeration — is extreme close-up of Phoenix cackling, dancing, smoking, grimacing, and generally running the emotional gamut. The latter half, somehow, is where the entire story of Joker seems to reside.
That moment of collision — the pitiful and the disturbing — should have driven the film, should have engendered the very same guilt that to me seems borne of a uniquely American marriage of violence and entertainment. Tarantino, Kubrick, and Oliver Stone all excel at making you laugh or dance while the thing onscreen is actually pretty horrific. Know who else does that? Martin Scorsese. Think of Goodfellas, when Henry Hill busts out laughing at Tommy DeVito’s violent “joke”; he’s made to feel guilty for feeling entertained, as are we. And then of course the remainder of the film’s murderous exploits are set to snappy music and cut like a music video. There might be just a dash of that in Joker, a few moments when you can’t help but marvel at the unnatural, but they’re all to Phoenix’s credit as an actor, not Phillips’s as a director.
It’s a double-edged sword, really: Phoenix’s performance is so intense and watchable that it becomes exhausting by the end of the film. We hardly look away from him for a second. De Niro’s TV personality gets a good amount of lines, as does Frances Conroy as Arthur’s mother, but there are no supporting characters that enjoy any development whatsoever. Zazie Beetz is onscreen a fair bit, but if her character has a name I didn’t hear it. Shea Whigham, Brian Tyree Henry, Bill Camp, Marc Maron, Glenn Fleshler — these are faces you’ll recognize moreso than actual characters. Brilliant as Phoenix is, Joker doesn’t leave you wanting more of his performance because it leaves nothing to the imagination.
What’s doubly ironic is that the movie did make me think of Scorsese, but not for the reasons I was supposed to be thinking of Scorsese. Joker doesn’t have half the style of Taxi Driver, not an iota of the restraint of King of Comedy, not nearly enough of that I-shouldn’t-be-laughing-but-I-am feeling so integral to Goodfellas. It reminded me instead of The Wolf of Wall Street, a movie which many enjoyed but which I found indulgent, tiresome, obnoxious and mostly hollow. There’s a great lead performance at the center of Wolf, one on which the entire movie is hung, but the film itself seems to have little merit beyond that performance. But hey, at least parts of it were funny.