After Joker, is there any way Joaquin Phoenix could shock more with a performance? Probably only by playing a healthy, well-adjusted person. To say he has made a career out of playing darker, complicated characters is like saying tornadoes have windy dispositions. His latest transformation into Arthur Fleck, the man who will become the villain who has plagued Batman since the beginning (literally, as the Joker made his first appearance in Batman #1 in 1940), might just be the best yet in a career defined by one jaw-dropping portrayal after another. Combine that with his powerful Hollywood connections, and it’s probably why he’s mostly evaded accountability for allegations of harassment.
Director and co-writer Todd Phillips is well suited to make the best use of Phoenix’s skills, having made a career out of bringing white male anxieties to the big screen, albeit mostly in a far more lighthearted fashion in films such as Due Date and The Hangover trilogy. But Phillips doesn’t have the heart to delve fully into the tragic story of a man who discovers that everything that’s been giving him comfort in his trainwreck of a life is either taken from him by a system and a society that’s becoming harsher and more uncaring by the day, or revealed to be a lie told by others…or himself.
Or maybe Joker just borrows too liberally from other sources while taking itself far too seriously. It’s easy to see why. Arthur is a mentally disturbed, skeletal shell of a man in a 1970s (or is it the early 1980s?) Gotham littered with garbage and hopelessness where happiness is in short supply. He consoles himself by dreaming of a career in stand-up comedy, although the truly painful thing is his fantasies don’t really revolve around fame, but connection, especially with his idol, Robert De Niro’s talk show host Murray Franklin, whom he and his fragile mother (Frances Conroy) watch nightly. Yet his mental illness often prevents him from forming the social ties he desperately craves, and from fulfilling his hopes.
The movie does manage to eloquently convey Arthur’s pain when he writes, “The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you do not.” There should be more of such moments, yet even if Joker couldn’t be accused of endorsing Arthur’s increasingly murderous actions, it has trouble building empathy, not just for those suffering from similar afflictions, but for anyone. If Joker was only about the time period it’s set in, where a bankrupt New York was suffering from rampant crime and decay, with an activist movement veering into violent extremism, the movie might manage the edge it believes it possesses. But the sense of irony, which often lent a bitter insight into the fractured psyche of many of the anti-heroes who defined the era, is absent.
It makes the movie’s commentary on today’s political environment not only misguided, but dangerous. Today’s activists are protesting the wealthy and increasing inequality as a form of survival. In Joker, they and the general public are symptoms of a social disease, animals lying in wait who are ready to attack those attempting to impose any kind of social order. The wealthy are the ones who occupy clean, elegant surroundings dripping with nostalgia for films such as Modern Times, ignoring star Charlie Chaplin’s pointed social commentary. Hell, the movie even has a businessman running for office who has a healthy disdain for those he’s hoping to govern. Yet he’s not only somewhat sympathetic, he’s actually mostly correct about Arthur’s background. Bad timing.
As Arthur loses control over his life and the city cuts the social services that at least gave him someone to talk to and (seven different types of) medication, it all builds to a climax that’s as painfully shocking as intended. Yet even that is tainted by the movie’s refusal to risk Arthur embracing the truly heinous ideology that someone in his position would most likely be naturally drawn to, thus risking making him truly despicable. Joker not only makes a point to depict Arthur as non-racist, but as someone who genuinely enjoys helping and bringing joy to children. He is continually the victim, not just of unruly teenagers, but elitist Wall Street types, his TV idol, his mother, and eventually, society itself.
It means that Joker misses the greatest irony of all – that such an all-consuming nihilism and victimization mentality is a privilege in itself, and often a typical calling card of the demographic which is often behind real-life atrocities such as mass shootings. This movie is indeed terrifying, but that’s because it’s horrifically, unintentionally insightful of how such men are viewed, both from without and within.