Joker Review – The Lost Meaning of a Smile

“You could say that what happened in that theater was a direct result of the movie itself.”

“That is so Moral Majority. You can’t blame real-life violence on entertainment.”

Scream 2 (1997)

The Joker needs nary an introduction, but perhaps a summation of the character’s unique place in pop culture. While his origins lie in the comic books, for the past 30 years the character has been established as one of the most enduring icons in film history, as well as one of the medium’s biggest box office draws. The character has thrived on the idea that each new silver screen iteration promises a different actor and a different take on the mythos. In the process, the character has almost accidentally become a mirror of the changing times – from an agent of terrorism in The Dark Knight (2008) to the fear of domestic terror and the anger of emasculated males in Todd Phillips’ Joker.

Pitched as a meaner, more sensational reimagining of Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982), Joker is the movie that everyone can’t shut up about because of the potentially negative effect the film’s depictions of violence may have on an already hostile world. The actual Joker would no doubt find some humor in the hysteria.

Joaquin Phoenix displays an astonishingly controlled madness as Arthur Fleck, a hapless/miserable full-time clown living in 1980s Gotham City. He lives in poverty with his ailing mother Penny (Frances Conroy), who is one of only two people to actually engage him in prolonged conversation; the other being his therapist. Arthur is socially inert and expresses his anxiety through bouts of pathological laughter. The little joys in life he does have is his work as a clown, and the talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Franklin’s show is a direct homage to the aforementioned King of Comedy, but whereas that film featured a Johnny Carson composite, De Niro seems to be doing more of a Jay Leno impression.

Arthur has delusions of being on Franklin’s show and establishing himself as a famous comedian, and the fantasies don’t stop there (although you’ll be able to guess what’s reality and what’s not pretty early on). But when his job, life, and relationships begin to take sour turns, Arthur makes the impulsive decision to push back against a cruel world in order to fast-track himself to infamy.

If there’s one thing to admire about the film, it is the dreamy visuals, at times reminiscent of Watchmen (2009). Phillips puts Phoenix center stage with low angled shots and superb framing in order to manufacture a spotlight for his featured performer. This allows Phoenix to demand our full attention whenever he’s belting a laugh or contorting his body in ways that would make Jim Carrey jealous. His performance has a bounce that is consistently arresting, and it would be no surprise if he’s nominated for an academy award. Meanwhile, Gotham City is rendered with the personality of crippling defeatism; it’s not quite the Detroit of Robocop (1990), but the cinematography still sends the message that you shouldn’t want to live here.

But how the film looks isn’t as important as what happens. Arthur’s violent rampage seems to have one primary aim – to hurt the people who laughed at him. However, he takes no responsibility for the decisions he made that cost him his job. Even as he goes on long-winded diatribes about how it was everybody else’s fault. In the film’s last act, the Joker becomes a one-note caricature of neglected anger, a character afforded very little complexity or sophistication. There isn’t the intelligence and unique values of Heath Ledger’s Joker, and then there’s Jared Leto who… instead there’s just a man who is very angry and mentally fried.

As the film descends further into madness, Arthur Fleck becomes less and less interesting. His mental conditions help to color his character early on, but those characteristics soon fade into the background in favor of generic lunacy. Early on, we notice that Fleck has written into the most raggedy notebook on the planet that he hopes “my death makes more cents than my life.” Later, his musings on the tragedy of his neglected existence is understandably replaced with genuine anger, but the film fails to frame it with any attempt at poetic recollection. It settles for safe choices that have already been done ad nauseam in similar films, which is fine if that’s what you paid for. But the film’s lack of creativity in depicting Fleck’s insanity is what stunts it from achieving the greatness that is has been hyped up to unleash. But fear not, at least we have time for a laughably forced origin for Batman.

Joker is indeed a fascinating film due to what works and what doesn’t. But unfortunately, the conversation about what the film succeeds at paired with its many flaws has been halted by a discourse on Hollywood brutality. Scream 2 once brought this topic to the forefront, a movie about the role violent media plays in a very violent reality. That film argued that art is just art and has no influence on the real world. Tellingly, the screenwriter of Scream (Kevin Williamson) was inspired to write the 1996 slasher after watching a true-crime TV program about murders in Florida. That’s influence. If media can inspire someone to write a screenplay, can it inspire someone to commit violence?

If there is one thing the film leaves viewers, it’s that you shouldn’t think too long about what’s underneath the surface here. “And remember, that’s life!” is the sign-off for Murray Franklin’s corny talk show. That’s Life by Frank Sinatra plays over the soundtrack on multiple occasions. This is a film that attempts to put a mirror up to real life, and the resulting reflection is all the movie aims to offer; there is no great subtext, no grand point. No, there is no “joke”, regardless of what the final scene may imply. “You wouldn’t get it,” Arthur says to one character, but there is nothing to “get” and the movie knows that.

In the opening scene, Arthur looks into a mirror while trying and failing to get himself to smile. Later, he explains to a stranger that his uncontrollable laughter is not evidence of any happiness on the inside. This is an unintentional deconstruction of a universal symbol of euphoria; what is more depressing than a broken smile? A lying smile may be the most honest thing the film has to reflect off the modern world, where anxieties and insecurities are hidden beneath a wall of cynicism and sarcasm. Perhaps this is a reflection of something real in the world. Arthur’s reflection, just like the film’s metaphorical reflection, is certainly art, but only you can decide if it’s worth acknowledging.

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