Since its debut just a few weeks in the past on the Venice Film Festival, the place it gained the highest prize, Todd Phillips’s “Joker” has stirred up fairly a tempest. Hands have been wrung concerning the film’s supposed potential to encourage acts of real-life violence, and criticism of its brutal nihilism has been met with a counter-backlash, together with from Phillips himself, who has been sounding off concerning the “far left” and “woke culture” and different threats to the flexibility of a murderous clown to make cash unmolested. Meanwhile, the same old armies of skeptics and followers have squared off with ready-made accusations of dangerous religion, hypersensitivity and quasi-fascist groupthink.
We are actually on the part of the argument cycle when precise ticket consumers have an opportunity to see what all of the fuss is about, which signifies that it’s additionally time for me to say my piece. And what I’ve to say is: Are you kidding me?
To be value arguing about, a film should initially be fascinating: it should have, if not a coherent perspective, at the very least a worked-out, thought-provoking set of themes, some sort of imaginative contact with the world as we all know it. “Joker,” an empty, foggy train in second-hand type and second-rate philosophizing, has none of that. Besotted with the notion of its personal audacity — as if willful unpleasantness had been a type of creative braveness — the movie seems to be afraid of its personal shadow, or at the very least of the faintest shadow of any precise relevance.
It barely even works inside the confines of its personal style, the comic-book film. “Joker” is a supervillain origin story, involving a personality whose big-screen résumé already consists of three Oscar winners (two for different roles, however nonetheless). It’s not laborious to see the attraction. The Joker, an embodiment of pure anarchy, may be performed gentle or heavy, scary or enjoyable or suddenly. He can sneer like Jack Nicholson, snarl like Heath Ledger or … I’m nonetheless undecided what Jared Leto was doing, however by no means thoughts.
As embodied by Joaquin Phoenix, he laughs rather a lot — sufficient to make sure that nobody else will. The hallmark of this “Joker” is its solemn witlessness. You may surprise how this might be the work of the identical Todd Phillips who directed “The Hangover” and “Road Trip,” which have at the very least a status for being humorous. The cleverest bit right here is casting Robert De Niro as a late-night, Carsonesque talk-show host just like the one performed by Jerry Lewis in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy.” In that movie, De Niro was the crazy stalker, a talentless wannabe presuming to breathe the same air as his idol and quarry. This time out, he’s in the big chair, feeding the celebrity obsessions of Arthur Fleck.
That’s the Joker’s alter ego: a lonely, damaged man eking out an abject living as a clown-for-hire and living in a drab apartment with his mother (Frances Conroy). Phillips, who wrote the script with Scott Silver, takes us back to the bad old days of Gotham City, when work was scarce, rats were rampant and a garbage strike fouled the streets. Fleck is bullied by thieving poor kids and drunken rich guys, goaded to the point of murder by the meanness of the world. He has a crush on a neighbor (Zazie Beetz) that he thinks might be reciprocated. He keeps a notebook full of stand-up material and works up the nerve to go onstage at a nightclub open-mic night.
There’s nothing wrong with any of these plot points, or with the details that knit “Joker” into the familiar Batman world. Arthur has a connection to the Wayne family — we meet Alfred the butler and young Bruce — and also to Arkham Asylum. The problems arise when the film revs its allegorical engine and Phoenix tries to assemble a character from the tics and tropes he has been given.
Skinny, twitchy and at times startlingly graceful — Phoenix is one of the modern screen’s underrated dancers — Arthur has a physical and psychological resemblance to Freddie Quell, the misfit drifter Phoenix played in “The Master.” But he also carries the burden of being a victimized Everyman in a parable that can’t get its story straight. Arthur’s uncontrollable laughter arises from a medical condition that is possibly the result of childhood abuse. His profound alienation also arises from social inequality, the decline of civility, political corruption, television, government bureaucracy and a slew of other causes. Rich people are awful. Poor people are awful. Joker’s embrace of radical evil becomes a kind of integrity.
Or something. It’s hard to say if the muddle “Joker” makes of itself arises from confusion or cowardice, but the result is less a depiction of nihilism than a story about nothing. The look and the sound — cinematography by Lawrence Sher, cello-heavy score by Hildur Gudnadottir — connote gravity and depth, but the movie is weightless and shallow. It isn’t any fun, and it can’t be taken seriously. Is that the joke?
Rated R. Killer clown stuff. Running time: 2 hours 2 minutes.