In the 2005 Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, Joaquin Phoenix gets into a rather heated argument with Ginnifer Goodwin over how Cash can’t seem to be present at home with his family when he’s not touring. Phoenix, gaining momentum in his rage, chastises Goodwin for telling him how to act at home. The peak of his anger comes when he exhausts himself listing all of the expensive things he’s offered to Goodwin to please and comfort her, culminating in a final shout, “WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?!” 14 years later, as Phoenix sits on a Gotham City talk show in a sharp red suit and clown makeup wallowing in distress about the way the world is, it’s hard not to yell the same sentiment at him and the movie he’s doing this all for.
Batman fans should know right up front that despite the title, Joker has no appearances of DC Comics’ Caped Crusader. It does indeed take place in Gotham and Bruce Wayne is around, but he’s just a young boy hiding behind the wealth of his father, mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen). But the story of Joker can be found far beneath the Wayne family wealth and within the dirty impoverished back alleys of Gotham. It’s there we find Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a clown for hire living with his mother (Frances Conroy) and struggling to become a stand-up comedian. The problem is that he has a condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably until it becomes practically painful. It also doesn’t help that he’s quiet, socially awkward, spookily frail and not very funny. It’s even worse that he keeps getting knocked down (figuratively and literally) by the worst parts of the world around him and he’s starting to lose his mind. All he finds solace in is the clown makeup he hides behind, with the constant smile it affords finding humor in the darkest corners of Gotham. But is it humor, madness, or pure evil?
There are A LOT of problems with the idea of Joker before even getting to one reel of film. They vary from the nonexistent purpose of building an entire movie around a murderous quixotic supervillain to disassociating said movie with any prior depiction of the near 80-year-old character to telling the origin story of a character whose best quality is being shrouded in mystery. But all those points are moot, now that Joker is in theaters and there are new problems to talk about anyway. The question isn’t, “Why Joker was made,” because it’s a Warner Bros./DC property and the DCEU likes money over quality. The more specific question, “Why was THIS script picked for Joker?” However many reasons there were not to make a Joker movie, there was always the potential to do it right. No matter how many kids have his face plastered on their edgy Facebook posts or shirts or socks whatever else Hot Topic is selling, Joker is an evil man. He’s the comic-book personification of insanity, a man who not only sees no benefit in the human good but openly mocks it through horrifying cruelty. It’s one thing for him to openly point out the flaws in society, but the fact that he enjoys stoking its flame by drenching it with gasoline is what makes him a villain. Most movies with him involved have featured Batman (or his constituents) proving his theory wrong no matter how much damage he’s done. So if there’s no Batman, there has to be someone to remind the reader or the audience that Joker’s opinions and philosophy are flawed and wrong. In all of his madness, there has to be hope.
There is no hope, no humanity and no purpose to Joker. Whatever meaningful punchline the source material could’ve brought about, director and co-writer Todd Phillips (The Hangover, War Dogs) has completely missed it in favor of a movie that only exists to reinstate the constant and at this point annoying fact that, yes, “we live in a society.” All 122 minutes of the movie adds up to nothing more than cinematic misery porn, dour for the sake of dour. It teases challenges of classism, the gluttony of the wealthy, misunderstanding of mental health and crime, but it never follows through. It’s just more dressing for the movie to justify Fleck’s actions in a half-assed way. It’s not outright endorsing Fleck’s actions, but it doesn’t offer a better solution or even and endgame for Fleck and those he inspires. It’s a riot for nothing and the reward is even less. Granted, Fleck’s story arc is riddled with events that would likely make anyone go insane and lash out at society. The movie gains a modicum of momentum when Fleck’s insanity is further revealed in the second hour, but it still manages to sabotage itself with its incomplete conclusion. Writing a story about society and human behavior without showing some form of decency is unrealistic, even for a movie based on a comic book character. And when the story by Phillips and Scott Silver (8 Mile, The Fighter) does reach its conclusion, there’s an overwhelming sense of, “So what?” The dialogue is first draft material without digging skin deep, especially when it wants Fleck to explain himself. All of the lived-in sets of late-70s urban America and understated cinematography and choice (if not occasionally inappropriate) pieces of 70s AOR rock and for what? A conclusion that loudly and proudly states, “The world is bad.” To quote the star, “WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?!”
Speaking of which, the fact that Phoenix took a break from his established track record of low-budget indie dramas to tackle such a high-profile role for a big project. Even though the story and script fails him, Phoenix does what he can with this version of the Joker. He’s leagues away from the Clown Prince of Crime, instead being an extreme example of a disenfranchised society gone wrong. He feels like an alternate version of his Freddie Quell from The Master, a man constantly on the verge of either crumbling into a mess of sadness or exploding with rage. Whereas Quell drowned himself in booze and women to block out the anger he feels at how little life had to offer him, Fleck can do nothing but widen his smile and take his anger out on others in spastic and shocking ways. Phoenix contorts his boney physique through scenes and makes laughter seem like the most painful experience imaginable, building his menace to its inevitable crescendo and reveling in the fact that no one can rationalize his madness. The script may do him a disservice, but dammit all if he doesn’t still manage to embody the Joker’s being.
It’s almost enough to block out the fact that so much other talent is wasted here. The other top-billed star is Robert De Niro, now on the opposite side of The King of Comedy-coin playing a snarky talk show host who finds Fleck hilariously pathetic. While De Niro is set up to be the shred of humanity to hold against Joker when the two come face-to-face, but that’s also rendered moot knowing that De Niro’s character is part of the reason why Fleck goes mad. It’s another case of the script failing the performer, though De Niro feels like he’s on cruise control in his brief time. Conroy is merely another peg for the movie to knock down to get Fleck in the costume, while the likes of Zazie Beetz, Marc Maron and Brian Tyree Henry have little to no presence or impact on the story. Beetz’s presence is something of a swerve on the audience and another cog to Fleck’s insanity. With all of these actors wasted, Joker might’ve been better as a off-Broadway one-man show. It certainly would’ve fit the ego the movie has about itself.
So let’s ask Phoenix’s question again: what do you want from me? Movies can be a lot of things: entertaining, provocative, challenging, funny, unique, or inquisitive. Joker wants to be none of those things. Its misery turns to tedium, its social commentary is rehashed, its story is flawed, its message is pointless and most important of all, it’s just empty. Heartless, soulless and yet proud of itself so being both, Joker thinks it’s being bold when it’s really being petulant. It wants points for pointing out societal flaws and but can’t bring anything else to the table when its asked to show its own colors. Whatever impact it thinks it has is about as relevant as a rambling bum on the side of the road. Like Fleck himself, Joker keeps staring into the spotlight laughing at its work when it can’t look down to see nobody’s listening. And yet it keeps laughing for no damn reason.