Review: ‘Joker’ is a joke without a punchline

Let’s get this out of the way: I did not like this movie. Todd Phillips has made a movie about a horribly abused man who lives in a world full of assholes and who also has mental health issues and who also has a condition who also has some terrible impulses and through the course of the movie starts acting on those impulses, and places the blame literally everywhere but on him, but doesn’t really make a compelling argument about any of these ideas.

Joker is an essay without a thesis or a joke without a punchline. There’s a lot going on but no actual payoff. I couldn’t tell you who Joker is actually for, but I worry that one of the worst crowds on the internet is going to hold it up as inspirational.

In a word: yikes.

As the film opens Arthur Fleck is a part-time party clown, spinning signs outside stores and entertaining kids for a living. He lives with his mother with whom he has an … interesting relationship.

Gotham City is in the midst of a garbage strike. There is filth everywhere and the poor of the city are getting fed up. Thomas Wayne is running for mayor and preaches about wanting to raise the downtrodden out of poverty but also calls them all clowns.

Herein lies one of my main problems with this movie: it’s a world in which nearly everyone is a raging asshole. The world can be a tough place, but in an origin story there generally needs to be a moment of choice where the protagonist has two paths and decides to take one of them. This movie doesn’t have that, it just has Arthur Fleck beaten into a literal and figurative pulp until he finally kills someone in a rage. There’s no debate about this, internal or otherwise. Arthur has clearly been the kind of person to lash out like this from frame one, and then he eventually does it.

Neither does the film really dig into what may have made him this way. In lieu of one cause, the film seems to choose all the causes. He has mental health issues. His mother is unstable. He was abused. He has a condition. Etc, etc, etc. This would be fine, but again, since all the causes are there it can’t really dig into any of them in any meaningful way, nor does it make any meaningful comment on society.

The world is just a bunch of assholes and eventually, we’re going to get what’s coming to us.

Joaquin Phoenix is one of our most gifted actors and his willingness to do whatever is asked of him is on full display here. Make no mistake, Phoenix is great in the part. He apparently lost 20+ kg for the role and he is utterly transformed into Arthur Fleck. Arthur has a condition that makes him laugh inappropriately and pay attention to Phoenix in these scenes, in particular, the physicality and torment he conveys are stellar.

Robert De Niro is also here as a late-night talk show host a la Johnny Carson, one of the larger links between this movie and its clear inspiration The King of Comedy. De Niro is clearly having a great time and I wish he’d had more screen time to play in. Zazie Beets, Bill Camp, and Shea Whigham are all here too but they are entirely wasted.

What I am saying here is that while Phillips and Co clearly love the late 70s/early 80s Scorsese films (Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy in particular) and have adapted the look and feel of those movies expertly, they forgot that those movies also have something to say about society. Joker feels like a movie that wants to say something but doesn’t actually have anything meaningful to say. It’s just "watch out for the incels, they’ll all get violent eventually."

Then again, maybe that’s exactly the kind of movie the Joker would want.