'Joker' doesn't have a punchline

Courtesy PhotoJoaquin Phoenix stars in 'Joker'

Even if it achieved nothing else, even if it hadn’t already won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and received a deluge of critical acclaim and debate upon its initial festival premiere, “Joker” would still come out of 2019 as one of the most talked-about movies of the year. In some ways, that’s impressive all on its own in a marketplace saturated with franchises, but the rise of “Joker” in pop culture discourse is particularly impressive because it achieved such a status well before almost anyone in the world had actually seen it. The weeks leading up to its October 4 release date were absolutely packed with often ferocious online arguments about the movie. Critics and bystanders alike wondered aloud if the film could spawn violent copycats, the parents of mass shooting victims spoke out, and “Joker” director Todd Phillips ultimately waded into the debate himself by crying hypocrisy, and insisting that his movie was no more violent that the hit “John Wick” action franchise. It’s all added up to the kind of publicity, good and bad, that even the best studio PR machine can’t buy, and now that the film is here countless moviegoers will flock to it just to see if all the fevered discourse was actually worth it. 

Is “Joker” really the cinematic powder keg so many people would like to believe it is? Is it a bold, audacious new direction for one of the most well-known villains in comic books? Is it even Oscar-worthy?

The short answer is no. “Joker,” I’m sad to report, is none of those things, and perhaps the biggest reason why is that the film plays like a movie that really, really wants to be all of those things.

Rather than constructing a recognizably comic book-ish world for his Joker to come alive in, Phillips (who also co-wrote the film with Scott Silver) draws inspiration from films like “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy,” and places his criminal clown within the gritty confines of Gotham City circa the late 1970s or early 1980s. From the moment the film starts, Phillips wants to make clear just how foul life in this version of the big city is, so he peppers news reports with things like garbage strikes and “super rats” running amok in the streets. Mountains of garbage bags rise up on sidewalks in Phillips’ version of Gotham, graffiti covers virtually every vertical surface, and if you see a fluorescent light bulb hanging overhead there’s a good chance it’s flickering menacingly.

It is into this rather hopeless landscape that Phillips introduces Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a party clown who wants to be a stand-up comedian and struggles with a neurological condition that causes him to laugh even when it doesn’t match his actual feelings. Arthur’s life ticks all of the stereotypical disturbed loner boxes: He lives with his ailing mother (Frances Conroy), has an unrequited crush on his neighbor (Zazie Beetz), gets picked on at work, and leads a rich fantasy life in which he’s one day going to be a guest on Murray Franklin’s (Robert De Niro) late night talk show, which he watches every evening with his mother. Arthur’s life, the film repeatedly shows us, is hard, and it gets harder when his therapy sessions at the health department (and by extension, his medication) are wiped out by funding cuts. As both Arthur and Gotham spiral into despair, the aspiring comedian looks for a way out, and that way turns out to be violence.

There are a lot of things in “Joker” that work, and Phillips is a canny enough director to put those elements right up front as often as possible. The film’s visuals are a perfect encapsulation of the kind of street-level aesthetic the film is going for, from the dirty streets of Gotham to the colorful, Carson-esque curtain on Murray Franklin’s talk show. It’s a very well-conceived world that manages to achieve a sense of heightened reality in the very slightest sense, so we recognize everything onscreen just enough that we’re willing to take the trip with the film when it starts to go over the edge into an unknown realm.

From there, it’s up to the cast to take our hand and guide us into the mad world of “Joker” as things escalate, and this is a hell of a cast. Conroy, De Niro, Beetz and the rest of the ensemble are doing solid work, but of course this is a showcase for Phoenix, and he rises to the occasion. You can see his investment, his commitment, and even the little inspired flights of mad fancy he takes in the midst of bringing the character to life. He remains one of the best actors working today, and turns in a performance that’s hard to look away from.

The trouble is that “Joker,” for all the hype surrounding its supposedly transgressive, audacious storytelling, wants to have it both ways. It wants to trot out comic book conventions – mountains of trash, the specter of crime in Gotham City, an army of men in clown masks trying to start a riot – whenever those conventions suit it, but it also wants you to forget about all that silly comic book stuff. It wants so badly to be taken seriously that it becomes cartoonishly self-serious, grim, and relentless in its pursuit of edgy story elements. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem – ambition and overreaching in filmmaking can often make up for lackluster performance in other respects – if it weren’t for the film’s reliance on paint-by-numbers, surface-level story elements to create its supposedly unhinged saga. There is nothing here that we haven’t seen in a dozen other “Taxi Driver” homages in the last 40 years, and a little greasepaint can’t cover that up.

But even that is not the biggest problem with “Joker.” Watching it, even in its best moments (and there are truly some very striking, unforgettable moments in this film), you can’t help but get the feeling that this movie is trying too hard to be…something. It wants to be the movie your parents warned you about. It wants to be the dark horse awards contender. It wants to be the most controversial film of 2019, a wish that might actually be granted. Beneath that veneer, though, it’s a movie that tries so hard to be important that it forgets to be entertaining.

‘Joker’ is in theaters October 4.