He's a Card
There are a number of ways one could approach the discussion of Todd Phillips' Joker. One of the best jokes in last year's Teen Titans Go to the Movies concerned a succession of spoof Batman spin-offs desperately trying to wring every last drop of commercial potential out of the character's mythology – a movie about the Batmobile, a movie about Batman's utility belt, and so on – and from a certain point of view this does look like exactly the same sort of thing.
Or, one could suggest that the new film comes from the same place as recent successes like the Deadpool series and Venom: there does seem to be a market for dark, morally ambiguous fantasy films aimed at an older audience, and you don't get much darker or more morally compromised than the world's most famous supervillain. (If you wanted to be really nasty you could start comparing it to the 2004 Catwoman film, which it likewise bears a passing resemblance to, but that would surely qualify as unnecessary cruelty.)
Then again, you could also view it as the inevitable next step in the rise of comic book movies to complete world domination: superhero films routinely make billions, and are beginning to acquire a certain sort of respectability – Black Panther was nominated for Best Picture, and it's a reasonable bet that Avengers: Endgame will be, too – and Joker looks very much like a calculated attempt at a classy, serious film intent on receiving critical acclaim in addition to its almost-inevitable financial success.
Who knows? Maybe it's all of these things. What we can definitely say is that it is set in a squalid, 1980s version of Gotham City, where we find Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix). By day, he is a white-faced, green-wigged clown for hire; by night, an aspiring stand-up comedian (unexpectedly, pretty much the only joke we hear him deliver is a classic Bob Monkhouse line). He is a deeply troubled man twenty-four hours a day, though, living alone with his mother, obsessed with a TV chat show host and comedian (Robert De Niro), taking seven different medications for various psychiatric conditions, and afflicted with a curious nervous complaint causing him to laugh uncontrollably in stressful situations.
But, over the course of one hot summer, with the city wracked by a financial crisis, those stressful situations keep coming, taking their toll on Arthur's fragile mental state. The tipping point comes when he is attacked on the subway by three entitled, arrogant young employees of the Wayne corporation: in a matter of seconds his assailants are dead and he realises he feels much more cheerful and comfortable with himself. News reports of a killer clown preying on the wealthy are soon spreading, while it is becoming increasingly clear that a nihilistic force of chaos is incubating within Arthur, only waiting for the right moment to manifest itself...
It may be a coincidence, but films featuring the Joker have a tendency to attract controversy more or less in proportion to the acclaim received by the actor in the role: the 1989 Batman featured one of Jack Nicholson's biggest turns, and was a very rare example of a film which required the BBFC to create a new certification for it (the 12 rating, should you be wondering). Heath Ledger famously won a posthumous Oscar for his performance in The Dark Knight, but the film was again mired in controversy for supposedly glamorising knife violence. It should come as no surprise that Joker is also getting some commentators hot under the collar, the suggestion being that it may inspire copycats to perpetrate the same kind of violence that the Joker indulges in here.
There is certainly a question to be asked about what exactly is going on with a film like this, and it's the same one many people asked about the last movie to feature the Joker, 2016's Suicide Squad: why do a movie about the Joker without Batman in it? Isn't the whole point of the character that he's an antagonist and a foil to someone else? One of the many smart things about The Dark Knight was its handling of the unhealthily co-dependent relationship between the two of them. All the word on Joker is that this is a standalone film; any appearances of the character in the foreseeable future will feature the Jared Leto version, not Phoenix's. So what's the point of an origin film for a someone we're never going to see again?
Well, the quality of the film is more than high enough to answer most criticisms along these lines: the depiction of a grimy, seething Gotham is as good as any other we've seen in the movies, and the film is built around a characteristically intense and committed performance from Joaquin Phoenix. This is quite a long film, with the recognisable Joker persona not appearing until the closing stages of it, and Phoenix takes us through every step of Fleck's psychological disintegration and transformation. This is the kind of performance that normally gets award nominations when it isn't in a comic book movie; it will be interesting to see how hard the old prejudices die.
It is interesting that Phoenix works hard to be pitiable and relatively sympathetic early in the film, but by the climax the character has convincingly become a genuinely unsettling and frightening psychopath. The film obviously owes a big debt to The Dark Knight – in both films the Joker chooses to paint his face, rather than having his skin chemically bleached in an accident – but the climax is equally obviously inspired by a sequence from Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns (probably the single most influential Batman story of all time). It's Miller's version of the Joker which Phoenix seems to be channelling.
It's still the case that the film-makers have made up a new genesis for the Joker from scratch (the Joker's creators felt that giving him a history would humanise the character too much, something Christopher Nolan later agreed with) and so the decision to make the film about mental illness is a deliberate choice on their part. Again, one wonders whether this is a slightly portentous comic book movie which has adopted some very mature subject matter in order acquire some spurious gravitas, or if it's a seriously-intentioned drama about the corrosive effects of urban alienation and isolation that's roped in some of the Batman characters to make itself more commercial. I'm really not sure; the answer may actually lie in the film's various homages to films made around the time it is set – most obviously King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, of course, but there are also surely references to Network and The French Connection.
All the call-backs are respectful and clearly sincere, but they seem to be the main reason why the film is set decades in the past. This is another decision which does have awkward consequences, especially when you consider that Joker seems to want to comment on various current social issues – for instance, the Joker finds himself adopted as the figurehead for an Occupy-style anti-capitalist movement (in line with this, the film features an atypically unsympathetic take on Thomas Wayne (played by Brett Cullen)). None of this feels especially thought-through, and the film doesn't feel like it's presenting a cohesive thesis. Heath Ledger's enigmatic Joker was an agent of chaos and madness, demanding the other characters in the film re-assess their attitudes and moral choices; Phoenix's Joker is just a symbol of chaos and madness, the film too introspective for him to be anything more.
Then again, in the absence of Batman, he doesn't really need to be. I suspect that this is a film which is liable to be over-praised for the way it brings a grim, gritty, psychologically naturalistic approach to its comic book source material (ironically, the writers of comic books figured out that going dark and mature was essentially a blind alley over two decades ago). The film is impressively made and Phoenix, as noted, gives a brilliant performance, but it offers little in the way of genuine insight and it runs the genuine risk of taking itself too seriously. Without Batman or an equivalent figure to engage with, the Joker isn't an especially interesting or significant character. Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix are to be commended for making a film which to some extent manages to avoid confronting this problem, but this doesn't mean they've solved it. Joker is very impressive on its own terms, it's just that those terms are undeniably odd.
Also This Week...
...Ready or Not, a knockabout Grand Guignol-ish comedy-horror. A young bride (Samara Weaving), keen to be accepted by her wealthy new in-laws, does not demur when it's time for the traditional post-wedding games night, nor when it transpires they'll be playing hide and seek. The film's best moment comes when she sets off to hide, amused at the silly foibles of the super-rich, while unbeknownst to her, in the room she has just left her father-in-law starts handing out crossbows, axes, and elephant guns. (Always get the rules straight when playing a game for the first time with new people.)
As noted, it's a terrific premise, but building a whole film around it is tricky, especially one that doesn't peak at the end of the first act. The scriptwriters just about manage it, but it's notably more successful as a very black comedy than it is as an actually scary horror film (though it is spectacularly gory in places). Good performances, especially from some of the homicidal in-laws, plus it looks good for a relatively low-budget film. Not the greatest comedy or best horror film of the year, but it passes the time entertainingly enough.
...Judy, Rupert Goold's dramatisation of Judy Garland's residency at a London nightclub in the last year of her life. Renee Zellweger plays the troubled legend, forced into a lucrative foreign engagement simply to pay her legal fees, and it is a very impressive piece of impersonation, to say nothing of her recreation of Garland's vocal style. The film is unquestionably Zellweger's, but this does mean that capable performers like Jessie Buckley and Andy Nyman don't quite get the chance to shine one would have hoped for.
Very much a companion piece to Stan and Ollie (both films feature Bernard Delfont as a character), but somehow it's rather less insightful. It gives you exactly the Judy Garland you'd expect, the troubled, brittle diva; perhaps the point of the film is that Garland was left with no identity other than her public image by the traumas of her early years. Unexpectedly powerful and affecting in places, but I'm not sure it really brings anything new to either our understanding of Garland or the declining-Hollywood-legend-visits-the-UK subgenre.