Edwin Arnaudin: Three years after Jared Leto's much-ballyhooed turn as Joker in Suicide Squad wound up being little more than an extended cameo, Todd Phillips gives the character proper feature treatment in the 1981-set origin story called, well, Joker. Starring Joaquin Phoenix as mentally ill aspiring comedian Arthur Fleck, the film is an unapologetically dark and violent take on the Gotham villain. In turn, it's a treat for viewers like me who are fascinated by artistic, intentional looks at humanity's grim side (e.g. Taxi Driver and Se7en), and therefore extremely polarizing. Where do you fall on DC's latest flick?
Bruce Steele: But is it, really, DC's latest flick? It's got the title and the DC logo and a rich guy named Wayne and a few familiar makeup and costuming choices, but this character has almost nothing in common with the mad criminal mastermind from the comics and many previous movies. He’s just an unlikable nut job who can barely hold down his job as a rent-a-clown. When a fellow clown gives him a gun to defend himself — need I say more? He couldn't plan his way out of a trash bag. (By the way, how tired is the garbage strike as a symbol for a decaying society?) When Fleck appears to have moments of lucidity, it's often not clear whether we're watching reality or his self-aggrandizing distortions of reality. This is no Joker origin story. It's some sad parallel universe where the Joker is a nasty case study in the failure of the mental health system. Phillips isn't rethinking comic book movies. He's just borrowing some set dressing to give Phoenix a showcase.
Edwin: This is the kind of rich, complex movie DC has been trying and failing to make ever since The Dark Knight Rises. After the blessedly light Justice League and Aquaman, a return to darker subject matter is likewise welcome — as is another fresh perspective, one strengthened by narrative ambiguity that post-Nolan comic book films haven’t dared attempt. In that way, Phillips is definitely reconfiguring the genre landscape, and anchoring it to a true feat of acting — something that peers likewise haven’t required of their stars. But if viewers aren’t curious about this gritty Gotham and its hyper-relevant societal woes or dialed into Phoenix’s disturbed performance, full of maniacal laughs that are truer to the character than any previous incarnation (Heath Ledger’s overall superior turn included), it’s going to be a long, unpleasant sit.
Bruce: It’s certainly unpleasant, and Phoenix is definitely more impressed with himself than I was with his repetitive, indulgent performance. How many times do we have to watch Fleck nervously handle a cigarette, laugh maniacally, bare his scarred and bony body, or do his tiresome madman dance? (Answer: many, many times.) Phoenix is in love with his own repulsiveness — to what end, I have no idea. I didn’t find Joker rich or complex, just monotonous and sour. There’s exactly one decent human in all of Gotham, Fleck’s neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz), whom he stalks and whose storyline is a dead end. I’m all for moral and narrative ambiguity, but it needs to be anchored in a clear point of view, like the Scorsese and Fincher movies you mentioned earlier. Phillips’ purpose in concocting this dreadful vision eluded me all the way to the two unresolved endings.
Edwin: Phoenix is terrific. Arthur’s tics may be few, but they never grow stale and the actor gets plenty of mileage out of them as they help intensify Joker’s suspense on the way to a showdown with late night talkshow host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, essentially playing The King of Comedy’s Rupert Pupkin in the twilight of his would-be career). The TV stardom angle is part of a clear critique by Phillips of society not merely ignoring underserved populations, but ridiculing them for their imperfections. In addition to the shortcomings of mental health professionals that you mentioned, the film sets up Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen, who ironically played a congressman in The Dark Knight Rises) as a Trump-like, out-of-touch gazillionaire who spews empty rhetoric while seeking political office — and who may or may not have a special tie to Arthur. Surrounded by such systematic ineptitude, it’s only a matter of time before the 99 takes action against the 1 percent. I get the sense that Phillips is suggesting revolt can take many forms, but by focusing on one that's primarily violent, he’s being honest about the way many fed-up citizens can and will likely react in volatile times — similar to what many Americans face today. The film’s relatability is staggering.
Bruce: The unrest that Fleck accidentally inspires isn’t a revolt, it’s anarchy. I’m happy to acknowledge the movie’s trendy tropes — the cold-hearted media, the wealthy demagogue, the shoddy support for the mentally ill — but with an unbalanced solipsist at the center of the movie, it doesn’t add up to anything coherent. It’s just flag waving. It’s relatable in the sense that outbreaks of meaningless violence are familiar, but there’s no insight offered. The fed-up citizens here are faceless, their motives unknowable; Fleck only communicates with a few co-workers, a social worker, a couple cops (the ubiquitous Bill Camp and Shea Whigham) who are terrible at their job, his neighbor and his mom (Frances Conroy), who’s as unhinged as he is. Rupert Pupkin and Travis Bickle were warped, but they had clear world views. Fleck’s only belief is that life is meaningless. That lack of meaning seems to be all the meaning Joker has to offer. Credit to Phillips for trying to break out of his Hangover rut, but while he’s got style, the substance is thin and toxic.
Edwin: I guess you didn’t see the excellent War Dogs, which hints at the social consciousness that Phillips goes all-in on here. Or maybe you did and it didn’t make much of an impact?
Bruce: I saw and enjoyed War Dogs, but like the Hangover movies, it’s essentially a comedy about men overestimating the power of their masculinity. Its patina of social consciousness seemed beside the point.
Edwin: Either way, Joker shows him to be a filmmaker in full control of his visual and narrative gifts. Regarding world view/motivation, Arthur wants to be a comedian and has been told by his mother that his purpose is to make people laugh, so when those dreams are dashed in spectacular fashion and he has nothing left to lose, you better believe he’s going to lash out. I see similar motivation in his nameless, often faceless (behind clown masks) comrades, whether scrawled on signs or in their actions. It’s a message that resonates with me and hopefully other viewers who are willing to go dark for plentiful cinematic rewards. I give Phillips’ best film thus far a B-plus.
Bruce: I also thought Fleck’s dream of being a standup rather beside the point. It wasn’t essential to his being, as it was to Rupert Pupkin. it was more of a psychotic whim — and a sick joke on Phillips’ part, since there’s nothing the least funny about this Joker. And therein lies my main problem with the film. Despite its admittedly admirable visual flair and Phoenix’s “gimme an Oscar” contortions, the notion that this creature ever becomes the great nemesis of Gotham is just ridiculous. It essentially erases the DC character and replaces him with dysfunctional psychopath, then declines to make a case for why audiences should care. I’m glad you saw something I missed, but like the shaky reality in Joker, I don’t think what you see is really there. I’ll grant the film a full grade above complete failure for its production values, but not its content. D.
Overall grade: C-plus. Rated R. Playing at AMC River Hills, Carolina Cinemark, and Regal Biltmore Grande.
(Photo: Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Pictures)