I never thought I could hate something Batman related this much.
Based on the Batman comic book character, Joker follows poor and socially ostracized Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a party clown who idealizes local talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) and aspires to be a stand-up comedian. Mentally unwell, Arthur lives with and takes care of his mother (played by Frances Conroy) in 1981 Gotham City. The metropolis is getting worse by the day with prevalent corruption and a class system that is crushing all but the rich. Arthur develops a relationship with a cynical single-mother (played by Zazie Beetz) who lives in his rundown apartment complex as he gets ready to perform his first stand-up gig.
Meanwhile, billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) is running for mayor, saying he’s the only one who can save the city. But the people of Gotham may have had enough of the rich. After Arthur finally snaps and kills a few Wayne Enterprises employees on a subway, protests and riots break out, people dressed as clowns inciting anarchy and demanding an overthrow of Thomas Wayne and the ruling class.
Comic book movies can be more than pure entertainment. They can say plenty, too. Heck, Maus is a critically acclaimed story, serialized from 1980 to 1991, about the Holocaust that became the first comic book to win a Pulitzer Prize. So, I have no issues with Joker tackling a darker story about a mentally unstable man who’s being stepped on by a cruel society that favors the rich and ignores the poor. But the movie tries waaay too hard and is rather incompetent.
I’ll accept that Gotham is filled with more jerks than your average city, but Joker takes it too far. Except for two or three characters that are given barely any screen time, every character in Joker is deplorable. Every. Single. One.
People seem to go out of their way to be mean to Arthur. Like when a mother angrily tells him to stop bothering her child on the subway when all he’s doing is making funny faces and making the kid laugh. After part of Arthur’s disastrous stand-up routine is played on Murray Franklin’s show, Murray actually invites Arthur onto the show, apparently to make fun of him further. This would NEVER happen. EVER. A prime time talk show host would never make fun of a young comedian on air, invite the comedian on the show, play the mocking clip again before he comes on, and then chat with him and ask him to tell a few jokes while constantly making fun of it all. A live talk show also wouldn’t keep airing after an uncomfortably strange guest admits to very publicized murders and talks about how he doesn’t feel bad about it. Yes, people can be dicks. But they do not act with this prevalent and contrived mixture of cruelty and stupidity.
While I’m on the subject, what is up with young Bruce Wayne in this? He’s only in a couple scenes, but he never reacts to anything. At one point, Arthur, wanting to enter the Wayne Estate to speak with Thomas Wayne, begins performing basic magic tricks for Bruce, who’s on the opposite side of the gates. Arthur eventually reaches through the gate, grabs Bruce’s face, and moves his mouth up in a grin. All the while, Bruce’s face and body don’t even twitch in response. He just emotionlessly stands there.
CHILDREN DO NOT BEHAVE LIKE THIS. I could maybe buy it if this version of Bruce was said to have a syndrome that prevented him from picking up on normal social cues, but that’s never hinted at being the case. And since it’s not, I’m wondering why Bruce isn’t weirded out and calling for an adult.
I will give the movie’s cinematography some credit. Phillips and director of photography Lawrence Sher came up with an interesting look with some shots and angles that feel different from the norm. But it’s still a tad pretentious. It’s as if Phillips designed the film based on what he thought an arty film should look like.
Slight points also go to Phillips wanting to say something about timely social issues dealing with a divisive, mean populace and those struggling being looked down on by those well-off. But he has nothing constructive to say about any of it. He’s only pointing out their presence. Phillips offers no solutions, seeming content to say people are crap and the world sucks and leave it at that. He leaves me thinking that he wants me to sympathize and agree with the psychotic killer who brutally murders without remorse while finding humor in death and tragedy. Phillips never offers up any convincing counter arguments. So, we’re left with one deranged point of view. The important and timely social points are lost in the nihilism.
I’ll admit Phoenix’s performance is good, but everything around him was so awful and I hated the messages he was giving voice to so much that I couldn’t notice or appreciate his acting.
Joker desperately wants to be dark art that says something important, but it fails at almost every point because it doesn’t understand people and it has nothing to say. It’s a miserable movie with no positive human emotions, and I loathed almost every second of it.