We were expecting more.
We were also expecting less. As we arrived at the Marcus Cineplex, the parking lot was cordoned off in a peculiar way, diverting traffic from its usual stream. We were also greeted by Appleton PD as we had our tickets punched on our way to the concessions — a sign of the times, I guess, but unfortunate nonetheless.
The movie really asks and answers one question — can a Joaquin Phoenix Joker bring something to the table that we haven’t seen from Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger, among others? The answer is pretty clearly yes, and he carries what I would characterize as an extended improv performance in an extraordinary fashion. The man has some moves, the trudge up the stairs and the iconic dance down the stairs is possibly worth the price of admission in and of itself. And so what does that get us?
Well, it doesn’t get us the most interesting character imaginable, that’s for sure. As a character, it’s tough to beat the Joker from The Dark Knight. That Joker is a criminal mastermind who meticulously plans everything, down to the timing of a parade of school buses through Gotham. The question is, who is this guy? His gang doesn’t know, though he’s clearly persuaded them to play along. The cops don’t know, his clothes are custom, no tags. What he tells about his backstory is disturbing but probably not terribly trustworthy. This is all in the writing and Heath Ledger’s brilliance makes it all the better.
The Joker writers don’t give us a terribly interesting intellectual payoff, either. Again, the big reveal in The Dark Knight offers a stark example: Alfred tells us that “some men just want to watch the world burn.” A terrifying thought that begs for an answer that never comes. Instead, to stifle the threat, The Batman has to take the bat fall himself “because he’s the hero Gotham deserves but not the one it needs right now. So [they]’ll hunt him, because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero, he’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector. . . a Dark Knight.”
In contrast, Arthur Fleck is an open book. We know exactly who he is and what he’s all about. What’s the big reveal in this one? I think it is supposed to take place when he visits the Arkham Asylum, but what is revealed there isn’t terribly surprising. I walked out thinking it was lazy, connect-the-dots writing. Presumably the two hours of plodding along is supposed to allow us to wallow in his pain and see where this is coming from, but what we get does not add up to any Joker I’m aware of. And this Joker, while certainly insane, does not have the makings of a criminal mastermind. The mayhem he brings is a combination of his own spontaneous reactions to being bullied, and a confluence of societal anger that the film is too lazy to develop. I thought that as the film plunges him into insanity we would see his intense solitude morph into the obsessiveness and attention to detail that we’ve come to associate with Joker characters. Nope, he’s just mad that you are bullying him. And by the end he’s just plain mad.
The tradeoff between a high-quality script and Phoenix’s Oscar nomination is probably easiest seen in the garbage strike. The movie opens with it and it seems like the societal disaffection is going to be built around it, as garbage piles up in Gotham and all that entails. Instead, that plot line comes to an abrupt halt after Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro) uses it as a punchline on his talk show. There are, indeed, a few scenes where we see garbage in alleys, but certainly not suggesting any crisis situation. The gun is on the wall in the first act, so to speak, but we never find out what happens to it.
A fundamental issue with the narrative is that the audience has no one to root for, there isn’t a single likable character. The kids who steal Arthur’s sign in the opening scene are little thugs. The Wall Street guys senselessly harass the women around them and evidently have a violent streak as well. What we should take away from Arthur’s would-be love interest (Sophie Dumund) eventually becomes shrouded in a haze, but she isn’t terribly likable, either. And even the Wayne family is rolled under, with Thomas Wayne making an appearance as an entitled, boorish lout, with disdain for those who live in the city around him. This doesn’t seem to add up to a city that Bruce Wayne would be inclined to care about, or to a Wayne family name that he would feel obliged to live up to.
As for DeNiro, he seems miscast in his role as a talk show host. In fairness, the movie has such heavy King of Comedy and Taxi Driver overtones that it is possible he is there just to remind us of the comedy stylings of Rupert Pupkin and the violent outbursts of Travis Bickle.* Like his Pupkin character, DeNiro is not funny in this role — and funny is something this movie desperately needs. His motives for grooming Arthur as a potential guest are hazy, is it just for ratings? Murray Franklin perhaps just represents that even a banal personality becomes larger than life on the back of celebrity. Arthur is intoxicated by the prospect of that celebrity, and perhaps that’s all there is to it.
As an aside, I think a much better choice for the role would have been Craig Kilbourn. He’s physically imposing, he carries an aura of entitlement, he has the potential to be biting and smarmy at the expense of his guests, and he is actually funny. A critical point of the narrative is that Franklin is getting laughs at Arthur’s expense; why not give the audience actual laughs at his expense? That would have set up an even more uncomfortable establishment comeuppance.**
On the plus side, I did enjoy the visual characterization of Gotham, particularly the train shots into the city center and along the river. I also thought there were some cool tight shots in the stair sequences (the dancing down the stairs is remarkable) and I appreciated the steely gray of the street scenes. I might see it again to take it in now that the edge is off in terms of the plot.
But, we were expecting more. A headline for The Economist review says that Joker is neither perceptive nor politically sophisticated, and that pretty much sums it up for me. Joaquin Phoenix delivers a performance Gotham’s Joker deserves, but the writers fail to deliver a backstory that anybody needs right now. What makes a man just want to watch the world burn? Two hours later and I’m no closer to an answer.
* We also see further Scorsese influence from Raging Bull and After Hours (and probably others, too). I was reminded of the Alex character in A Clockwork Orange, but he was charming and likable, making his character even more problematic than Phoenix’s Joker.
** Indeed, this is a movie that the audience in our theater erupted in laughter exactly once, and it was at the expense of a person of short stature precisely because he was short! As far as metaphors go, I doubt this is a movie that will kickstart any social movements — its audience literally laughs at the misfortune of the little guy.
And that is probably the answer to my question: there are no laughs because this would put us at odds with the movement arising around the clown vigilante. Presumably, the audience is somehow supposed to buy into that movement without necessarily embracing Arthur as a protagonist?