By Jake Rutkowski.
There’s an old Simpsons bit that I often turn to in times of ambivalence: Homer, faced with the prospect of buying a cursed Krusty the Clown doll, weighs the pros and cons as outlined by the mysterious shopkeeper (a racist caricature recalling Keye Luke in Gremlins ). “That’s good,” he says in that blank, naive, Homer way when something is good; “that’s bad,” when it is not. He stares, clown doll in hand, reacting in kind until he tires of the dialectic exchange. This dumbfounded paralysis is essentially how I have been experiencing the discourse around Todd Phillips’ Joker (2019) over the past month or so. It feels especially relevant that the critical focus in this metaphor is a piece of clown-based entertainment. The Venice jury, lead by international arthouse darling Lucrecia Martel, deemed this genre film worthy of the Golden Lion? That’s good. Some early reactions claim that it could send certain internet subcultures into murderous fits, such that the U.S. military issued safety warnings to service members about attending screenings? That’s bad. And so on. Buzz and controversy for a comic book movie are not new phenomena, but this one has already courted both in extreme fashion and swiftly generated wave after wave of booms in the “hot take economy.” Upon finally watching the film instead of just experiencing it through the news, it’s plain to me that capturing a national mood is among its explicit intentions, so the sensationalist hay that media outlets have been able to make from it should come as no surprise. While this effort to hold a mirror up to a cultural moment yields something not much more politically trenchant than a ripped-from-the-headlines episode of Law and Order, the film as a whole ranks among the more interesting experiments with intellectual property in recent memory.
About that cultural moment. Though it uses the Taxi Driver (1976) griminess of 70s New York for its overall mise, the film really counts on many current topics of media focus (class, mental health and mass violence, civility, comedy, populism) for a mixed bag backdrop onto which it projects its character study. There is an overall air of “divisiveness” in the Gotham of Joker, as news reports catalog rising class tensions and increasingly squalid conditions for its residents. The city’s angry masses begin attending rallies in clown masks and makeup in subversive acceptance of a soundbite from potential mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne, an allusion to the fated “basket of deplorables” gaffe from the 2016 presidential election. In a supposed acknowledgement of the many clowns on both sides of America’s political divide, other set pieces recall scenes from the far left: signs that read “kill the rich” and “Wayne = Fascist,” black bandanas, a burning limousine. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) wanders through this powderkeg city as a passive observer, upset with the state of things and intent on curing social ills one laugh at a time as both a rental clown and a fledgling stand-up comedian. Bad things happen to Arthur, things in which he sees the systematized machinery of meanness and injustice, until he flips into becoming a man of action. This is no mastermind, but an accidental Clown Prince of Crime who stumbles into his notoriety through a series of unplanned instigations. At one point, in a perfect distillation of our protagonist’s place in this machine, Arthur sneaks completely unnoticed past a demonstration and into a film screening event attended by Gotham’s elite. The film is Modern Times (1936), Chaplin’s satirical examination of the alienating forces of industry and progress. For all of its uneven messaging, Joker shows a social realist’s concern for a working class subject and the forces that impact his agency. It’s just that, in a move reminiscent of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer , this working class subject also happens to be a murderous psychopath.
Phillips very clearly wants to say something in using this character that has become a shorthand for ugly idiocy in the guise of provocative political thought. There are plenty of other examples of pop culture firebrands that could stand in for the Joker as a focal point for this meta-narrative about aggrieved men seeking solace but finding only resentment: Tyler Durden, Holden Caulfield, and especially other comics characters bearing Alan Moore’s trademark misanthropy like Rorschach (Moore’s spin on the Joker in 1988’s The Killing Joke is a clear reference point for iterations of the character from the past decade or so). The trick here is in collapsing art and discourse, as the film seems to almost be for Arthur as much as it’s about him. There’s a frisson in the passing thought that Joker might be pointing its finger at people who very much hate having fingers pointed at them, provoking the provocateurs. Given that my screening came complete with metal detectors, undercover security, and staff stationed in the aisles throughout its two hour runtime, I can’t help but wonder at the daringness of such a film were it to exist.
But Joker is actually weakest in its most proselytizing moments, and the ersatz depictions of political struggle and mental illness are reduced to so much set dressing for what’s ostensibly a comic villain origin story. Like too many “auteur blockbusters,” it offers commentary without critical engagement. Historical replica without historicity. Comics and comic book movies are very much battlegrounds in an overarching culture war, and that’s nothing new. Mass produced and abundantly consumable, they’ve always served as hotly contested territory for the right’s quest in preserving some semblance of artistic purity. They present “perversely ‘innocent’ utopias” as outlined by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart in How to Read Donald Duck, a 1971 handbook on imperialist ideology in Disney comics published in Chile right on the brink of Pinochet’s coup. The lines from capitalist cultural tribalism to outright fascism are easily traced, which any critic who has panned a franchise film and seen their inbox fill up with death threats can tell you. Arthur’s invocation of “good little boys” during the big delivery of his manifesto points to the infantilization machine that facilitates this pipeline. In a topsy-turvy corner of pop culture that sees the creations of Randian weirdo Steve Ditko become ensconced in the force behind inclusive progressivism in franchise filmmaking, and then a man once entrusted with adapting the work of left anarchist Alan Moore become a Randian weirdo, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by a comic book movie missing its critical mark. Setting aside the conversation that the film attempts to enter, what’s left is an uncomfortable, doleful, undeniably energizing character study and actor’s showcase for Phoenix.
And what a showcase it is. Arthur is equal parts Jim Carrey’s Andy Kaufman, Natalie Portman’s Nina Sayers, and Robert De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin; a fragile and delusional artist who Phoenix plays with soft, almost endearing, manic helplessness. The sheer physicality is at once nauseating and invigorating. His taut, waxy form is disconcerting, all ribs and vertebrae tensing through dances and pathological fits. The first instance of the Joker’s trademark laugh, explained in this version as an uncontrollable tic brought on by emotional distress, made me gag in hyperempathy as it rolled in a seemingly endless paroxysm toward heavy, rattling breaths. There’s also the dancing. Be it Vaudevillian vamping, choreographed stair routine, or flowing freeform, Phoenix’s dancing is hypnotic. In another 70s callback, the triumphant stair dance that figures as a sort of Rocky  moment, signaling an underdog overcoming adversity. We see Arthur trudging an impossibly steep tack up these stairs several times throughout the film, then late in the third act he emerges in full Joker regalia and trips an intoxicating light fantastic down the same staircase and on his way to the climax of the story. Joker being the puckish thing that it is, Arthur performs this number after committing one of his more disturbing murders, and is accompanied by Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2.” Choosing a recognizable and raucous glam rock anthem performed by a serial child rapist is the exact kind of deliberate challenge to cancel culture I expected from Phillips, who laments what he sees as an overly censorious and sensitive climate around comedy. Though I feel a crushing exhaustion in the face of this sort of public wound-licking, I do admire the film’s commitment to comedic timing and overall preoccupation with the entertainment industry. Fans of comedy history (if such a thing exists) will enjoy the miniature stand-up showcases, behind-the-curtain talk show views, and references to the use of “sick comedy” in the 70s counterculture scene. Phoenix’s physical performance also lends genuine humor, as he sprints erratically, walks into closed doors, and pratfalls with the best of them. Early in the film, he takes a beating from a group of adolescents, a pathetic figure in full clown get-up writhing around in a filthy alley. As the film’s title fades, he heaves exasperated breaths, and the flower on his lapel dribbles wan streams of water. For all of its misguided faults, Joker does a very good job of finding humor in the most degrading examples of the human condition.
On the point of degradation, Arthur meets with his social worker just after this incident, and she coaxes him into sharing his journal. She reads a passage aloud: “I just hope that my death makes more cents (sic) than my life.” He giggles. This nihilistic mantra might as well be ripped straight from the final social media post by one of too many mass shooters these days. I am not so much trying to make a pearl-clutching point about the “danger” of this film as I am calling attention to a production note. These real-world concerns provide material reality for Joker, but like Arthur and like any number of violent extremists, the film is not quite up to the epistemological challenge and resorts to forced outcomes instead. As Bifo Berardi writes of James Holmes, the 2012 Aurora theater shooter, “For the spectacular mass murderer, the aim is to break the mirror of the spectacle. For him, the border between reality and imagination are blurred, indistinct, distorted. He wants to take part in the spectacle, so that the spectacle may become life, and – ultimately – death.” Arthur also experiences his own delusional slippages into spectacle, and although claims that Holmes was inspired by the Joker in The Dark Knight  have since been debunked, I wonder if that matters. The mirror that Phillips holds up in Joker is already broken.
Jake Rutkowski holds an MA in English from Rutgers University in Camden, where he studied genre semantics and the African-American hero in Western films of the 1970s. He regularly covers film at Identity Theory and Cutting to Continuity and is a contributor to the forthcoming collection David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.