I never wanted to see Joker and now that I’ve been obliged to do so by my annual Oscar marathon, I sort of glad I did. Not that I enjoyed it. Well, actually, it starts out interesting, as we see very skilled professionals, working at the top of their games and armed with a big budget, roll out a big splashy entertainment. But quickly it becomes more interesting as pathology than as art. It’s the kind of picture that makes me think, sometimes while I’m watching it: Why does this movie exist?
The obvious answer in this case is, To make millions of dollars. Because the origin story of the most famous villain in the Batman franchise is as close to a sure thing as exists on God’s green earth; all you need is a great actor to follow in the footsteps of the other great actors who preceded him in the role, top-shelf workmanship, nothing too obnoxious in the conception and the filmmaking, and you’ve hit the jackpot.
But that’s not really what the question is meant to answer. You could give the same answer for any commercial entertainment, whether sure thing or fond hope. But some movies, including some big moneymakers, remain in the memory and affections of audiences even for years after. That’s because they may have been made to make money, but they exist for other reasons.
I confess I’m not the target audience for Joker. I don’r cotton to comic-book movies. I thought Black Panther was okay for a juvenile entertainment and I admired Batman Returns for using the funny-book form for social commentary. But even in this dumb age, where intelligent people rave to me about Watchmen, I still can’t take that shit seriously.
And I’ll tell you something: I don’t think Todd Phillips and his co-writer Scott Silver take it seriously, either, besides as a career opportunity. Because what can we make of the story of proto-Joker Arthur Fleck? He’s the ultimate loser; living in a decrepit and dangerous 70s-New-York-based Gotham, seriously mentally ill with pseudobulbar affect and (it would seem) mild schizophrenia, living with his apparently dotty and semi-invalid mother, Arthur chain-smokes, works desultorily as a party clown, and dreams of a Better Life with a girlfriend and fame on the stand-up circuit. Arthur’s reversals are so cruel — when he’s beaten up while sign-spinning for his job, his boss docks his pay; his comedy act is only noticed as an occasion for public mockery — and he is so ill-equipped to deal with them that I wonder if anyone involved in Joker thought of actually playing them for laughs. Imagine Buñuel’s Joker, or Elaine May’s! Or maybe a version made by a commercial comedy director — you know, like Todd Phillips.
Alas, Arthur’s sorrows are not treated as funny but as bathetic. He’s menaced by his ambience, too, which is a comic-book exaggeration of a real New York that I knew first-hand, but which is re-imagined here as if by a titillated suburban teenager who has never been punched in the face, looking at old pictures and going wow that’s so fucked up and cool. Decrepitude, violence, and neon are all turned up to 11, past any relationship to reality; Gotham’s dazed denizens shamble through the hellscape, apparently used to the worst extremes of human behavior yet inspired by a couple of random murders to citywide riot.
When under all this pressure Arthur inevitably snaps, he merges with the increasingly chaotic city and finds himself, so to speak, as an icon for the madness of his age. Thus we have the genuinely bizarre spectacle of an American blockbuster movie about a psychotic killer who inspires deranged multitudes to orgies of violence. It’s enough to make you want to watch The Sound of Music.
Even on the terms of a comic-book movie it’s ridiculous. The Joker is in every other incarnation an evil mastermind, yet Arthur is shown throughout this movie to be a hapless schmuck, celebrated by the mob not because of but in spite of himself. Though his madness drives him to murder he isn’t particularly clever about it — he just shoots and stabs when the adrenaline hits. How do we get the supervillain Joker? A bite from a radioactive spider? (There’s a hint at the end of Hannibal Lecterism — as if going mad has unleashed Arthur’s genius, or else someone remembered the necessity and tagged it on.)
And doesn’t this flat backstory kind of spoil the Joker for Batman purposes? Having to wonder about the guy was a lot of what made him interesting, at least in his movie incarnations — Ledger’s mystery was tantalizing, and Tim Burton and Jack Nicholson had the brains to put the whole thing down to the acid bath, as if it melted away the original dime-a-dozen lunkhead thug to reveal an inspired freak hiding underneath. It may be that besides Bob Kane’s iconic demonic clown, the best Joker is Cesar Romero’s: No origin, no psychology, no pretense — just pure explosive lunacy.
I give Joaquin Phoenix credit: He actually plays Arthur as a human being, and as if the absurd stresses of the story are real; each of his reversals, and even each of his laughing-sickness fits and dance reveries, is very particular and believable, not shtick. I like Frances Conroy as Arthur’s mother just as much, a wraith floating in a sad dream — when her secret was revealed, I found it had all been there in the performance all along. And DP Lawrence Sher and production designer Mark Friedberg really made the lurid spectacle both lurid and spectacular. But no amount of craft can give this childish fantasy a reason to exist.