Todd Phillips’s Joker: a grim, controversial but ultimately flimsy origin story

Joaquin Phoenix’s performance makes this film seem better than it is – but Joker remains insubstantial and inconsistent.

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Origin stories are currently in a “Before They Were Evil” phase, explaining – if not exculpating – some of our culture’s most noteworthy baddies. Maleficent argued that the villain of Sleeping Beauty wasn’t such a beast, and the forthcoming film version of the musical Wicked will put a positive spin on the witch from The Wizard of Oz.

In Joker, it’s the turn of Batman’s most enduring foe, the exuberantly psychotic jester last played by the late Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. In that portrayal, the character spurned analysis: “I just do things,” he whined. Joker, on the other hand, painstakingly scrutinises the woes of the rent-a-clown Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) in its campaign to mitigate his subsequent misdeeds. No moan is left unturned: he’s plagued by mental-health issues, beaten in the streets, framed by a workmate, stuck with a sick mother (Frances Conroy), humiliated when he performs stand-up, abandoned by the health-care system and left to rot in an early-1980s Gotham City inundated with rubbish from a refuse strike. The film hurls everything at him short of a stubbed toe.

Arthur’s response is to laugh. With one bony hand clutching his throat he gives a heaving, mirthless rasp that suggests he’s about to cough up a fur-ball. Then he fights back. Viciously assaulted by three businessmen on the subway one night, he opens fire and becomes an anonymous folk hero, graduating from class clown to class warrior and inspiring “Kill the rich!” headlines.

The film-makers haven’t grasped that this is not how the cycle of resentment usually works. A real-life Arthur wouldn’t slay stockbrokers; he’d pick on those more powerless and vilified than he is – ethnic minorities, immigrants, the homeless. A cleverer film might also have shown the mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), father of the future Batman, redirecting the mob’s rage against a nebulous elite, as so many populist politicians have done.

It may seem odd to complain that Arthur isn’t sufficiently vile, but that’s only one area in which the director Todd Phillips has failed to learn from his most obvious influences, Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, two Scorsese movies also concerned with nobodies who use violence to achieve notoriety. Robert De Niro, the star of those pictures, plays Arthur’s reptilian TV idol, though the suggestion that Joker has anything more in common with Scorsese’s work is the biggest joke of all. Phillips wallows happily in images of urban sleaze. Subverting our sympathies in challenging ways, however, isn’t within his skill-set.

When the film holds together it is down to Phoenix, who reflects Arthur’s turbulent inner landscape in every facial twitch and bodily contortion. In Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, there was more of his bulk and his beard than the screen could contain, but in Joker his painted face is pared back to its tendons and ligaments, his forehead carved with deep grooves, his ribcage bursting through his skin as though there’s another person in there trying to get out.

While the script makes Arthur pitiable, Phoenix preserves his humanity. He must be the reason Joker won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival last month – he’s good enough to make the movie seem better than it is – but even he can’t make his character consistent. In a comedy club, he laughs in all the wrong places and scribbles clueless misspelled notes (“sexy jokes alwase funny”) but still somehow brings basic timing to his own vaudevillian routine. So does he have a functioning sense of humour or doesn’t he? And how does a TV producer obtain a recording of his club act in this pre-smartphone age when video cameras are the size of cereal boxes? These are the questions an attentive script editor might have asked.

Despite its resemblance to New York, Gotham City is a fictional world with its own rules, though that doesn’t make it any less incongruous that the ringleader of the attack on Arthur happens to know all the lyrics to “Send in the Clowns”  from A Little Night Music. A love of Sondheim may well be compatible with hooliganism, though a likelier explanation is that the director can’t resist an ironic song choice. Sinatra’s breezy “That’s Life” gets a look-in, as does Nat King Cole’s “Smile”. The use of Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2” during one of Arthur’s sinister slow-motion dance routines may be a twisted in-joke about the devil getting all the best tunes, though in this case he also gets the royalties.

Phillips’s deployment of sorrowful cellos and a sickly colour palette proves definitively that he is tired of being known as the man behind the Hangover trilogy. But there is a middle-ground between throwaway humour and enervating miserabilism, and even those of us averse to superhero antics may feel cheated that there are no glimpses of the super rats which we are told have been running amok in Gotham City, let alone a little mano a garra combat. 

Joker (15)
dir: Todd Phillips

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 02 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit revolutionaries