A few years back a series of single-sentence plot summaries surfaced on the Internet that recontextualized the premises of famous films, often with the result of casting the protagonist in an ironically negative light. For instance, The Wizard of Oz was reframed as a crime thriller about a teenage girl who, upon being transported to a fantastical land, promptly murders and loots the body of a community leader before teaming up with a trio of locals on a quest to kill again. Finding Nemo was reinterpreted as the horrific nightmare of a man whose wife is brutally murdered by a serial killer before his physically-disabled son is kidnapped, compelling him to embark on a rescue mission with the aid of a chronically-amnesiac transient. In a true thematic reversal, The Dark Knight was recapitulated as the story of a deranged billionaire who copes with his crippling PTSD by dressing up like a giant rodent and victimizing an extremely troubled, mentally ill man in a clown costume.
These twisted plot rewrites are, of course, meant to give us a hearty chuckle as well as prompt some reflection on the underlying messages and themes conveyed in our favourite films, not to mention showcase how imperative context and perspective are.
Anyway, Joker is about an extremely troubled, mentally ill man in a clown costume who is destined to be victimized by a deranged billionaire in a giant rodent costume.
Be forewarned – spoilers about in plenteousness.
I probably don’t need to bother with a plot overview because at this point everyone and their keyboard-warrior mother-in-law possesses an informed opinion of this movie coupled with a comprehensive understanding of how mental illnesses work based off an afternoon of research conducted on Buzzfeed – but what the hell… Joker stars Joaquin Phoenix as a down-on-his-luck, emotionally-disturbed clown temp named Arthur Fleck whose meager fortunes go from bad to worse in a series of incidents that culminate in his ascension into the identity of the Clown Prince of Crime known as the Joker. If you’re even passingly acquainted with Batman comics, Shakespearian tragedies, cookie-cutter origin stories, or Blake Snyder’s bestselling novel Movie Outlines So Basic Even a Lobotomized Sea Cucumber Could Understand Them, you already know what happens pretty much beat-for-beat before the curtain rises. “It’s Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke meets Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy,” insists writer/director Todd Phillips to a desperate Warner Bros executive. “Only better because I’m directing it!”
Everything you’d expect to feature in a gritty drama about a man who qualifies for AISH becoming the Joker unfolds exactly as you’d expect with few surprises, largely because the narrative turns that were meant to serve as surprises are about as difficult to predict as my OCD grandfather’s bowel movements. Early on, the already-prone-to-delusions Fleck shares an elevator ride with an affable young woman from his apartment building, played by Zazie Beetz (whose presence makes me yearn for the fun, optimism, and energy of Deadpool 2). In her introductory scene she’s wary of Fleck but ultimately cordial, and two scenes later she’s inexplicably his doting girlfriend. In a Third Act twist that will only induce shock if you have no prior knowledge of Fight Club or any movie ever made ever, Fleck’s romantic fling turns out to have been a product of his delusions the entire time. A revelation this brazenly obvious might have unfolded more gracefully had their courtship been at the forefront of the movie and properly cultivated instead of being peppered throughout the plot in sparse, supplementary scenes that mostly play without dialogue.
Still, this Kindergarten-level reveal is handled exponentially better than the blundering attempt to unveil who Arthur Fleck’s true father is, which is only a twist in that it’s not actually a twist at all. For those readers who have never conducted a film autopsy before, here’s a newsflash – if a protagonist’s world is rocked by a life-altering piece of information at the midpoint of the movie, chances are everything they just learned is either a lie, a half-truth, or just the tip of the iceberg. So, when Fleck learns that he may be the result of a sordid affair between his mother and none other than Thomas Wayne himself at the midpoint, we can safely assume that there’s more to the story. Sure enough, Fleck confronts his supposed daddy dearest only to be told that not only is he not the half-brother of the future caped crusader, his mother is a deranged, pathologically-deceitful narcissist who adopted and abused him (Popsicle twist!). Distraught, Fleck visits Arkham Asylum and investigates his mother’s old file, where he discovers – wait for it – that she is a deranged, pathologically-deceitful narcissist who adopted and abused him. That’s two back-to-back revelations for the price of one, in that they reveal the exact same thing – which is actually nothing at all because it was fairly obvious from Frances Conroy’s first scene that her grip on reality is fairly slack. Do you recall how Batman: Arkham Knight went to extreme lengths to convince players that its ‘mysterious’ new villain was anyone other than Jason Todd returned to life in a woefully subpar rehash of the excellent Under the Hood comic arc, only for him to remove his helmet in the final boss fight and reveal that – titty twister! – he’s Jason Todd? The only reaction such reveals ever generate is astonishment that something so blatantly obvious would ever successfully fool anybody.
As an aside, when can I get a live-action Red Hood film?
The level of obviousness at play also extends to Joker’s themes, which are a hodge-podge of topical hot-button issues pertinent to 2019’s cultural climate that utterly fail to translate into the movie’s 1981 setting. Gotham City’s elite are portrayed as indifferent to the woes of the impoverished or outright dismissive of them, with Thomas Wayne (who is not the kindhearted philanthropist long-established in the canon) at one point derisively accusing the poor of being jealous of everything the One Percent have rightfully accumulated. While this depiction of society’s elite being apathetic and lacking in self-awareness is not offensive or unrealistic in and of itself, its method of execution is groan-inducing and painfully on-the-nose, not unlike a Nickelodeon cartoon portraying every adult as a lumbering dummy-head so that Jimmy Neutron’s genius-level intellect can look even more impressive by comparison. Imagine writing a scene in which you need to establish how difficult it is for women to be treated with dignity and respect in a male-dominated work environment, but the only method you can think of to convey this is by having every man in the scene turn to the camera and say, “I think women belong in the kitchen because I’m a misogynist and a sexist and an idiot and a jerk and is my scene over yet because I’m becoming dangerously close to transforming into something that resembles a human being?”
Joker is clearly trying to engender sympathy for the disenfranchised and the downtrodden of society, but can’t think of any other way to do it than by employing one-dimensional, exaggerated caricatures as its antagonists. Its One Percenters are gleefully callous and spit upon those who have the audacity to be destitute, its police officers are trigger-happy morons (and not just against minorities), and its social workers are about as empathetic as crocodiles at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Now, I realize this isn’t that far-fetched in a world where Donald Trump keeps America’s nuclear launch codes stashed next to his Playboy collection, but serious films demand nuance, especially where its antagonists are concerned. For instance, Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest may be a malicious tyrant, but we still understand her motivations in the context of her administrating the asylum, which enables us to see her as an actual human being (due in no small part to Louise Fletcher’s subtlety and poise in portraying her). Joker’s antagonists, on the other hand, are not human – they’re NPC’s who deliver lines from a conversation tree devoid of complexity or substance. The ultimate problem with these flat, sub-characterizations is that the movie seems to think they justify Fleck’s psychological downfall and murderous impulses, which leaves the overall point of his journey in doubt. Are we meant to celebrate Fleck’s transformation into the Joker? Is society ultimately to blame for his actions, or is he? Is Joker attempting to highlight the vulnerability and isolation of the mentally ill as a means of generating awareness of their needs, or is it suggesting that the world must be punished for allowing them to slip through the cracks? Is this supposed to play as a tragedy or a triumph? Are the riots and murders committed by the ‘Clowns Occupying Gotham’ movement designed to be viewed as necessary acts of revolution against an oppressive establishment, or crimes for which its perpetrators belong in prison? Golly gee whiz, I never thought my biggest question arising from a movie about the freaking Joker would be, “Who’s the bad guy here?”
If we look beyond the paint-by-numbers story, the thematic bluntness, and the scores of plot contrivances (such as why that Arkham orderly would even bother retrieving Fleck’s mother’s file if privacy and confidentiality prevented him from releasing it), my biggest issue with this movie lies with the Joker himself. See, the Joker is not a character who lends himself well to the role of a morally-ambiguous, conflicted anti-hero. Call me a hopelessly out-of-touch Republican fartbag, but the Joker I know is a murderous, psychopathic, criminal mastermind with a backstory that has never conclusively been established despite nearly eighty years of publication history. He’s a fascinating character because he’s a cipher with nebulous motivations, an agent of chaos and anarchy who functions as the optimal nemesis for the orderly and regimented Batman. Seeing him here, denied his medication, taunted for his comedic aspirations, and on the receiving end of one indignity after another… well, it just makes me sad. This Joker is a man who desperately needed help, and the thought of him one day being curb-stomped by the son of the man who contributed to his mental breakdown just doesn’t sit well with me. I’ll concede that perhaps that was the point all along, but my point in all this is that I’m not sure what the point was. On the plus side, at least Fleck will make a lot of friends at Arkham Asylum, some of whom may feature in the inevitable team-up sequel – because Warner Bros. officially has no clue what to do with any of its DC properties anymore.
Not that it means much in the concluding paragraph, but I did not hate Joker because it’s not an entirely terrible movie. Todd Phillips’ direction is crisp, methodical, and makes effective use of colour, giving the movie a striking visual edge. The soundtrack is oddly mesmerizing and makes for some nice ambience on an afternoon drive, especially if your neighborhood reflects the urban decay of the early 80’s. Also, it’s nice to see Robert DeNiro putting forth some effort in a movie again – his presence has been sorely missed. Finally, Joaquin Phoenix deserves all the praise he’s been receiving for his performance, which is the most dedicated he’s given since 2012’s The Master. Unfortunately, these positive elements and Phoenix’s talents are wasted on an obvious, pretentious bore of a script with little interesting or original to say.
To close, though Phoenix might not hold a candle to Heath Ledger (never mind Mark Hamill), he’s still a far cry from being the worst Joker ever.