Don’t forget to smile.
I would have bought writer/director Todd Phillips‘ line about bringing his gritty origin film Joker to the 1970s as a way of removing it from the existing DC Extended Universe (more than he already did by recasting the titular character after Jared Leto played him in Suicide Squad) if not for new comments made on this recent press tour. Trying to drum up sympathy for the plight of the mistreated “underdog,” the man behind The Hangover‘s billion-dollar trilogy has lamented that you can’t do comedy in a post-woke/pc America. He’s apparently been forced into drama because we haven’t laughed since he revolutionized transgender jokes in Bangkok. And what does a period piece with a misanthropic lead provide? An arena to punch down without any need for on-screen recourse.
I don’t say that jestingly either. It’s in the film. When a trio of drunken investment bankers begins harassing a woman on the subway, the camera purposefully shows her catching Arthur Fleck’s (Joaquin Phoenix) eye in a plea for assistance. We cut to him staring back, his interest more in the “game” than her plight. So he doesn’t yell for them to stop or ask if she’s in trouble. He just laughs a disturbing cackle that’s already been written-off previously as an involuntary and random psychological response to a thus far unknown trauma. It does provide her a window to escape, but unintentionally. Phillips has therefore positioned the character as a stand-in for himself—laughing at un-pc behavior with a convenient excuse to reject any need for apology.
Herein lies my biggest issue with the film, though. Arthur isn’t fighting against wokeness. He’s not fighting against anything but his own personal bullies. His complaints against this cruel society that won’t accept him as anything but a freak with emotional and psychological problems setting him up for ridicule therefore prove hollow once his response is to unwittingly join them. They’re rendered even emptier once we discover that Phillips has made it so the target of Gotham City’s collective ire is the wealthy, formally-attired white aristocrats ruling over a rabble of an almost exclusively minority populace. Is Arthur being positioned as the voice of the impoverished—a white savior amongst the angrily oppressed POCs? While his anarchist refuses to think so, that is exactly what’s happening.
It’s an odd choice considering what’s clumsily set-up as an “us versus them” narrative because Arthur is forever outside of that central struggle. Should we hate him for epitomizing the mentally ill, lone gunman, incel stereotype? Or laud him for waking a complacent working class into standing up to those who wish to keep them in chains? Are we against the police for doing their job? The media for labeling three dead white predators as “young men”? A liberal elite pretending they know what the people want from their ivory tower perches? Or a fascist regime (a protestor holds a sign equating Brett Cullen‘s mayoral candidate with that far-right authoritarian philosophy) stomping over the poor? I honestly don’t know. Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver don’t seem to either.
They instead have too much to say without the tools to say anything above the myriad contradictions from start to finish. Everything ends up becoming noise onto which they project a character in desperate need of help who’s always falling through the cracks. Arthur becomes this enigmatic figure who cares about no one despite everyone caring (knowingly or not) about him. There’s something to this conceit if only someone with a better handle on its nuance were at the helm to flesh it out beyond the indignant funnyman who is in charge. You can’t simultaneously depict Arthur as a disconnected nihilist and the face of a legitimate revolution. You can’t play both sides while feigning complexity when your endgame guarantees the under-privileged will ultimately also become “bad guys.”
It shouldn’t be surprising, though, since Phillips is admittedly anti-union. So he’s happy to turn protestors into an angry mob just as he gleefully lets his antihero systematically take out the corrupt in power. And this works for the Joker character because it places Arthur on a level all his own—the supposed conductor of mass carnage as humanity feeds on itself like animals if only he had the agency to conduct. There’s actually a lot of good that the film’s misguided packaging ruins. But this is the inherent challenge of focusing on a villain in a way that forces him into the protagonist role. Phillips needs us to sympathize with Arthur at the start before cutting him loose by the end. He sadly forgot that second part.
What are we left to do then but watch without investment? We’re learning Arthur’s tragic history as he himself falls down the rabbit hole of truths he’s incapable of accepting without concrete evidence. And we empathize with that sense of despair. We’re watching him put bad people in their place on impulse without intent while those actions become warped and appropriated by a cause he ignores. And we forgive the script’s lack of conviction because we hope it bears fruit. We witness his devolution as his world crumbles around him right when he stops taking his medication. But we can’t simply brush the fact he verbally uses his mental illness as a crutch. And we can’t embrace his unpredictability since nothing he does is unpredictable.
The shame in this is that Phoenix’s truly unhinged performance is completely wasted. He excels in the drama and yet Phillips seems uninterested in Arthur’s melancholic pain when it can be subverted so that we laugh at the character instead. That too could be interesting if we knew where that reaction placed us, but we can’t if we’re unable to differentiate who’s side anyone is on. Eventually anyone who was his enemy could become his friend and vice versa. Talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) can be his champion or nemesis. Next-door neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz) can be his girlfriend or victim. What Arthur sees could be real or not. And while Phillips flirts with this duality’s genius, he never goes far enough to move beyond parlor tricks.
There’s irony in this since so much of the talk has been about how “brutal” and “unrelenting” the movie is—so much so that it “might incite violence in the streets.” It’s not, though. There are some bursts of bloodletting, but nothing shocking. There are allusions to the fractured nature of present-day America, but it’s muddled to the point where everyone is weirdly alt-right and/or antifa whenever it serves the whims of the filmmakers. Everything that captivates us about Arthur is inevitably forgotten and everything he becomes is beholden to familiar tropes we’ve seen before. Does the Gotham City packaging add something worthwhile? Or is it just Phillips’ way of insulating himself from the unproductive reality of his choices? It does look great, but I left feeling nothing.
 © 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. TM & © DC Comics Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise Caption: JOAQUIN PHOENIX as Arthur Fleck in Warner Bros. Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures and BRON Creative’s “JOKER,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
 © 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise Caption: (L-r) ROBERT DE NIRO as Murray Franklin and JOAQUIN PHOENIX as Joker in Warner Bros. Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures and BRON Creative’s “JOKER,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
 © 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise Caption: (L-r) ZAZIE BEETZ as Sophie Dumond and JOAQUIN PHOENIX as Arthur Fleck in Warner Bros. Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures and BRON Creative’s “JOKER,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.