Todd Phillips directs Joaquin Phoenix, Frances Conroy and Robert DeNiro in this comic book origin story for the clown prince of crime; positioning him as a mentally fragile innocent corrupted by urban malaise.
Come watch the dancing sad man become a glancing madman. Clearly one of the year’s biggest releases, not just in box office take but in that everyone currently has an opinion on it. It left me cold. A lot of craft has gone into visually gift wrapping the iconography of The Joker with the cinematic language of an early Scorsese. Phillips has produced a convincing looking pastiche of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, King of Comedy and After Hours. All superior films but why not steal from the best? This is New York as a hostile environment, where dirty colour is a lure to a predatory trap and the only condolence shown to others is not to be openly, wantonly cruel. Nihilistic, bleak, sleazy. But in a borrowed way. This isn’t real world isolation and madness… this is a brutal celebration of proactive pessimism. Misery parody. Popcorn desolation. Do I – a grumpy, hard thinking, Bukowski reading, The Wire-loving, humanity distrusting man- care that this is all so unrelentingly dark? No. Does seeing a mass market descent into Dostoevsky fan art appeal? Not really. This is ennui as window dressing, hell as a marketing tool. It doesn’t intellectually convince, nor say anything deeper than “People Ain’t No Good”. Nick Cave did that, he has a compelling naturally stiff baritone. You can’t fake that sadness and make it an event. It didn’t work for me, didn’t emotionally convince. I got bored wallowing in the artifice. You know where this purposeful train wreck is headed from the first 15 minutes and it never derails or deviates from that course. Yes I saw that twist coming and… yeah… that twist too. The child abuse stuff, less so. Surprise child abuse as a narrative garnish… yum! Phillips isn’t a disruptive visionary, he’s a hack wearing the trappings of a great. He couldn’t make War Dogs into a New Goodfellas, he couldn’t make Due Date into a Nu-Midnight Run. His best film is Old School. Old School still rocks the cock. Now if Scorsese made a Joker film I’d be all fucking eyes. But the director of Road Trip pretending to be Marty… I’ll keep my reservations, they feel pretty firmly founded. That’s not to say this is a bad film, just not the controversial masterpiece we are supposed to be worshipping. Phoenix goes all in. He has no other setting. I love him for this. His twisted soul is all sinew and jerking dead eyed outbursts. I liked it. I liked the self contained terror of him dropping his gun in the children’s hospital. I liked the couple of bigger, blockbuster-y moments that seemed to suggest he had transcended the chaos of this hateful city and could glide between the violence like a savant walking between the raindrops. That’s a nice take on the Joker. I enjoyed that. The impressive support cast is solid. Joker looks and sounds superb. I’d watch it again. But a masterpiece? A classic? Nah… this is World Book Day fancy dress up for a school shooter who’ll never have the nerve. About as emotionally true and cinematically daring as a nerf bullet in a Happy Meal. I’ll get my misanthropy from the geeks and losers, bums and burnouts, thank you very much. It really doesn’t belong on 1000 seater IMAX screens.