When “Joker” nabbed the top prize at the 2019 Venice International Film Festival, the internet was quick to herald a cinematic revolution. The film was billed as the evolution of the comic book movie, the precursor to a universe where highbrow art house films would star characters in capes and superhero fare would regularly clean up during awards season.
As it turns out, “Joker” is neither successful comic book adaptation nor sophisticated, gritty cinema; it is simply a mediocre film doing a pale imitation of its betters. Crammed with cheap iconography in a ham-fisted effort to brand itself as a Scorsese-esque character study (but still checking off just enough canned references to satisfy the audience of rabid nerds that it begrudgingly courts), “Joker” is a film so obsessed with being serious that it forgets to be good.
On its surface, “Joker” is an origin story for Batman’s infamous archenemy, following the downtrodden Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) on his compulsory descent into clown-based madness. Set in 1981’s Gotham City, Arthur’s downward spiral throughout the film is relentlessly — almost comically — miserable. His days consist of therapy sessions for a mental condition that causes uncontrollable laughter, slumming it as a clown-for-hire and taking care of his sickly single mother (Frances Conroy), who regularly writes to mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (yeah, that Wayne) with her pleas for financial support.
Even Arthur’s dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian — born out of a desire to emulate his idol and quasi-father figure, talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) — bring nothing but hardship, as Arthur soon discovers that a career in comedy requires you to be funny. When Arthur finally unleashes his rage, murdering a trio of Wall Street boys on the subway, he unwittingly becomes the center of a Gotham-wide social movement, culminating in the embrace of his infamous alter ego.
Arthur’s troubles are not only exhaustive in number — seriously, the list above isn’t even the half of it — they’re narratively incoherent. Writer and director Todd Phillips’ script stages each new misery as a climax; almost every other scene is drowned out by the oppressive drone of composer Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score or bracketed by hackneyed, slo-mo visuals. These aesthetic oversteps are failed attempts to perform the emotional legwork that the film’s lackluster script cannot. By the time “Joker” reaches its guns-blazing, all-hell-breaks-loose conclusion, the constant swells have become so taxing that the audience has lost the ability to care. The film feels less like a cohesive narrative and more like a loosely interrelated collection of events, a constant barrage of one-note grimness that actively avoids anything resembling levity and never pauses long enough to earn the big, cinematic moments that it smugly grasps at.
Phoenix gives a lead performance that allows for glimpses of his impressive skill, but never transcends the mediocre material he’s given. Arthur starts at 100% crazy and is given nowhere to progress from there. Though the script is seemingly a character study, its scattershot construction gives Fleck hardly any meaningful interiority as a character. Fleck’s psyche — denoted by Phoenix’s stilted, dreamy physicality and a clearly practiced manic laugh — feels a little too choreographed to be fully believed.
But perhaps the most unbelievable element of “Joker” is its juvenile conception of its own thematic importance. “Joker” pays lip service to a litany of societal ills — mental illness, persistent social inequality and political hypocrisy among them — but its discussions of these topics extend only to trite, laughably on-the-nose sentiments (“Kill the Rich: A New Movement?” reads a newspaper headline in one shot). The film holds up these watered-down condemnations as the distinction between “Joker” and its supposedly less intellectual source material, showcasing a pretentious aversion to its status as a comic book film — even as nonsensical subplots are shoehorned in to make room for the requisite references to the Batman canon.
In one of the movie’s pivotal moments, Arthur muses: “I used to think my life was a tragedy. But now I realize, it’s a fuckin’ comedy.” Arthur had it right the first time. “Joker” takes great pains to be a tragedy (a somber, important, artistic tragedy). And, in its pompous self-seriousness, incoherent narrative and utter lack of depth, the film succeeds — in being tragically bad. One can only imagine how a better-rendered iteration of Batman’s most infamous foe would assess this film. He’d probably say it needs to learn how to take a joke.