Part of Joker‘s allure, and one of the drivers behind its billion-dollar returns, is this cheeky in-joke that Director, Todd Phillips, dangles in front of his audience. “Ah.” He projects. “Surely my audiences will understand that this is more than a comic book movie.” He leans back. “They’ll certainly know that Arthur Fleck is a metaphor for Modern™ life!” He looks disconcertingly over to those sitting 12 rows back. All brows are furrowed. “The world is just so terrible and it’s cruel!”
Joaquin Phoenix breathes lots of life into Fleck aka the “Joker” and his take is eons more maudlin than Heath Ledger’s sardonic villain. There’s nothing about Phoenix’s Joker that’s fun. But does the audience get it? The connection between Fleck’s persona non grata status and the society he’s “forced” into is about as lucid as possible. It’s not supposed to be terrible hard to figure out. DO YOU GET IT?
It’ll be hard to tell, but there’s almost certainly a large portion of Joker’s viewership that prides themselves on understanding that Phillips wanted to make this very shallow point. “It’s more than a comic book movie.” Sure, but so was The Dark Knight and Ledger’s Joker also skewered “society” by showing and not telling how chaotic life could be if he simply egged on opposable and immovable forces. Fleck is Thomas Wayne’s secret love child? At least Taxi Driver didn’t try to undermine Travis Bickle’s descent into madness by “revealing” that he was actually Senator Palantine’s long-lost child. Or that he’d been conceived inside a taxi, so he’s having prenatal pangs of violence. Both would have worked as narrative motifs. Both would have failed as poignant plot points.
“Make it make sense!”
Criticizing Joker‘s inch-deep philosophy somehow less cool than honestly thinking Joker‘s tired “society bad” idea. Gatekeeping how someone should watch a movie is a trait very close to a Fleckian personality flaw; it’s like exalting oneself to a new acquaintance. “I am the smartest, and only I understand that this movie was very obviously a…” is somehow one of the least-likable sentences possible that it’s just not worth finishing. This movie has brought out this group to stand on top of Mount Obvious to guard from very-non-threatening shallow climbers.
Then there’s me, making meta-commentary. “Wow what a bland concept.” It’s so tiresome, and that’s what makes Joker a tired movie to me. Critiquing it isn’t fun, isn’t informative, and always makes the reviewer look out of step with the bulk of Joker‘s audience. No amount of criticism can undercut that Joker reaped over a billion in ticket receipts. I’m annoyed that, what, the movie wasn’t smart enough? Please, get a grip.
None of this makes this movie inherently good or bad. Lots of movies are like this—the ones that ultimately win Best Picture (sometimes) simply tell a story. Sometimes there’s depth and sometimes the story is elusive and sometimes it’s Crash. What Joker lacks (like Crash) is a credible nuance, even when Fleck/Joker is at his most obtuse. It’s too obvious that a person would react so linearly to the chaos swirling around unless…this is a comic book movie, right?
It’s not honest to backseat direct what decisions Phillips could have made. For instance, wanting Phoenix to descend into madness, like he did in Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here is not an honest interpretation of the movie we got. Instead, if we watch the movie we were given instead of the one we wanted, there’s joy to be had here. It’s just hard to say where.
Parasite was 2019’s clear and obvious winner. It’s on the list of best-ever Best Picture nominees. Joker feels like an outlier on this list, considering also released in 2019, but not nominated: The Lighthouse, Midsommar, Uncut Gems and The Last Black Man in San Francisco (the Academy hasn’t, uh, yet embraced A24’s weirdness). Had it not been nominated for Best Picture, we’d likely never talk about it again. The opposite of what Fleck would want.