Author: Joel Dull
Todd Phillips’ Joker is a film that has earned far too much praise, and most of the world hasn’t even seen it. Joker is a film that falls short of the discourse that surrounds it but will continue to be praised because of its ability to capture what is so lovingly craved by people who consider themselves well read in cinema because they watch the best picture winner from the Oscars each year. The film is well shot with a well-executed setting, but Joker is not unique, nor does it progress the comic book movie genre in any meaningful way. It combines the trend of R rated superhero movies with a style and theme from critically acclaimed films to create something that can be considered good, but not much more.
I’ll start with the one thing I genuinely thought was well done, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. The awards season has earned too much attention for what they classify as a “good” movie, but for what it’s worth, Joaquin Phoenix is likely to receive a lot of attention for his role as Arthur. That’s all I care to say about that.
Todd Phillips has been very clear that he was inspired by Martin Scorsese’s films The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver. To say he was inspired is an understatement. There are sequences of Joker that match up almost beat for beat with its reference material. It was so “inspired” by those films that entire character dynamics felt like a new draft of Paul D. Zimmerman’s screenplay (The King of Comedy). Zazzie Beats’ performance as Sophie Dumond was wonderful, but her relationship with Arthur might as well be a recasting of Rita Keane (Diahnne Abbot) and Rupert Pupkin’s (Robert de Niro) relationship. Derivative would be a better word than inspired for the film as a whole. Then again, should we really expect the man who’s most famous for The Hangover movies to be able to handle a film that attempts to have a conversation about incels? Apparently not because the emotional beats were all messed up thanks to random bits of slapstick comedy that interrupted the scenes.
Continuing with where Todd Phillips goes wrong, he does couple of things to try and create the sense of empathy that he wanted the film to have. The first way is Phillips’ brief attempt to point out the failures of the Unites States’ mental healthcare system. In this case Arthur is turned away from seeing a therapist because the city has cut funding (and don’t even try to tell me that’s a spoiler; it was in the trailer!). For this commentary to actually work, the movie would have needed to be rewritten in its entirety, but rather than drone on about how it could have been better, I just want to keep pointing out how it was bad. It was far too short. If all of the commentary he had on the issue fit in the trailer, it’s clearly not that big of a deal for him and it was merely used as a weapon. Nothing was said about the poor facility Arthur’s appointments were in and there was no real conversation about how uninterested the therapist was. Even the conversation about medication and all of the points that could have been brought up with it fizzled down to two maybe three lines. The conversation about how mental illness is treated in this country is absolutely one that fits into a character study of the Joker, but it isn’t a weapon to be used to create empathy for a horrible person. People like Arthur need help, and the way it is so often handled, or not handled is clearly an issue, but it’s clearly not an issue that needs to be handled by Todd Phillips.
Next on the list of cheap ways Phillips tries to make us feel empathy is the all too obvious enemy made out of the one percent and Thomas Wayne. Arthur’s actions end up spurring an extreme rejection to Thomas Wayne’s campaign for mayor and the general power of the rich. With our current political climate this enemy is so easy and obvious it would be cliché if it wasn’t actually an issue. Todd Phillips relies on the fact that a rich white man who has no real care for the people he is seeking to lead will be quickly and easily hated. And since he relies on the ease of creating this common enemy, he doesn’t actually develop it in a meaningful way. Of course, it also fails because the ultimate goal of this plot point is, again, to make us empathize with Arthur.
I have said that Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) in Black Panther is one of the most well written villains because the spectator genuinely wonders if he was perhaps justified in his goal. I also said that character would change the way that villains were written. The way Arthur was written attempts to raise that same question—are his actions justifiable or at least understandable? The issue with that lies in the identity of the characters. Killmonger is a young black man who was raised in the United States, found his father dead, and travelled the world as an elite soldier. He has seen black people around the world be oppressed and he wants to do something about that. The ultimate conclusion is of course that his methods are wrong, but the answer is not overtly clear. In the case of Arthur, he is a middle aged, self-pitying white man who wants to be seen by the world and also ends up turning to radical methods to achieve that goal. If the film had fleshed out the issue of mental illness further, my opinion might be different, but it is overtly clear that Arthur is a bad human-being, and any attempt to make the spectator empathize with him causes discomfort that the director was not intending.
Some critics like David Ehrlich are referring to as dangerous and a rallying cry for incels. Do I think it’s dangerous? It’s hard to say, but I don’t think we can dismiss it until it is proven to not spark any actual violence or other such danger (whatever that might be). Ehrlich refers to it as a rallying cry, but I’m not sure it is quite that powerful. I think it tries to create empathy for a truly horrible person (Arthur) and that could potentially translate to the real-life people who identify with his character, but that in and of itself is no real threat. I think, and hope, that to say the movie will have a profound effect on the public would be to give it too much credit. In my opinion, it’s claims are far too weak to incite any visceral response.
Joker had the potential to be groundbreaking, but ultimately it lacks finesse and a clear message. Everything is political. This film especially, and Todd Phillips was not capable of handling it. He created a film that checked boxes for political conversation rather than create a conversation of his own. A movie is a sum of its parts, and thankfully for this one, Joaquin Phoenix is an extremely big part. Even with his performance, though, Joker is little more than a stylized piece of fan fiction that combines a pop culture character with Taxi Driver and King of Comedy.
Joel Dull | KXSU Senior Arts Reporter