Tom Augustine on The weekend in film: October 5-6
It's barely been released and yet the talk around Joker (dir. Todd Phillips, R16) is already exhausting. The dubious winner of the prestigious Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival, this expansion and exploration of the backstory of Batman's greatest nemesis has arrived amid a flurry of bad press. With fears (not entirely unfounded) that Joker may serve as some sort of Incel (involuntary celibate) anthem for men and boys who find themselves aligning with the outlook of this particular iteration of the character, the off-screen saga peaked this week with director Todd Phillips (The Hangover, Old School) claiming that "the far left can sound like the far right when it suits their agenda" and decrying "wokeness" in general.
It's the latest tiresome development for a film that ultimately ought not to generate this much feeling, positive or negative. Aside from some engaging moments - a rich cinematographic palette and a committed performance from Joaquin Phoenix - Joker is a largely uninspired riff on the clown prince of crime; an ideologically empty, inconsistent and bleakly reductive story of a man pushed to the limits of sanity in his genesis as the iconic villain.
Phoenix is Arthur Fleck, a mentally ill man who lives with his mother in a squalid 1970s apartment in Gotham, working as a clown-for-hire between intermittent, uncontrollable fits of laughter caused by a brain injury. Appearing scraggly and emaciated, Phoenix commits 100 per cent to Fleck's downward spiral as things go from bad to worse for the put-upon performer but somehow the character never quite manages to click into place satisfyingly. So intently focused as he is on crafting an edgy and grown-up vision of the Batman world, Phillips sacrifices consistent character development, good scripting and editing.
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Fleck is, according to the requirements of each scene, either a helpless, innocent man-child led to mimic the cruelty of the world around him or a cold, calculating monster devoid of beliefs. It is a portrait of mental illness and poverty very clearly borne from the mind of someone who has never truly experienced or struggled with those very demons and yet uses them as tools for his lazy, unearned cynicism and nihilism. The laundry list of plot devices Phillips uses in his film without understanding the context of what he's suggesting by deploying them is staggering - not only mental illness but suicide ideation, physical and sexual abuse, the Resistance movement, the plight of women of colour and even dwarfism become unnecessarily nasty punchlines or philosophically empty attempts to be relevant to the state of the modern world.
Joker very clearly bears the influence of Scorsese classics like Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, among others but possesses none of the self-awareness or irony that made those films so powerful. While Joker is a film with ambition and occasional flashes of brilliance and it is undoubtedly refreshing to see a lengthy character study with only tangential moments of action gobble up the zeitgeist in the way this film has, it's also easy to begrudge a film that claims such classics as inspiration when those very films couldn't be made today without being lazily grafted on to a pre-existing piece of intellectual property like this one. Ain't it funny?
Rating: Two stars.