Joker defies everything you think a comic-book movie can be: it’s a violent horror film, a psychological thriller, and an intimate character study that — at its best — is a thrilling and memorable movie-going experience. At its worst, it’s a shallow and tedious joke that feels as devoid of a soul as the darkest alleys of Gotham City.
The good thing is that, even at Joker’s worst, there is a glossy coat of paint that just might be convincing enough to make up for its storytelling issues. This movie simply would not function without Joaquin Phoenix, who fully commits himself to the role both physically and psychologically and gives an absolute firecracker of a performance. He finds nuance in the character where the script lacks it, creating an evolution of madness that is as impressive as it is disturbing, which is the best compliment I can give to somebody playing the Joker. Matching the insanity of his performance is the city of Gotham, which has never been better realized as a gross, bustling city due to Joker’s terrific cinematography and haunting score.
Clearly the movie doesn’t suffer from lack of trying; if anything, it suffers from trying too much. I give it major props for trying to do something different, but everything is so deeply nihilistic and so shockingly one-note that it carries a self-serious tone which borders on self-parody (there’s a particular “serious” close-up so awkward that my friends and I couldn’t help but laugh). A movie about the Joker should obviously be dark, but this isn’t just dark: it’s dark for the sake of proving to you that it’s More Than Just A Comic-Book Movie™, thinking that a splat of blood on the screen amounts to actual depth. It tries to tackle issues like society’s treatment of the mentally ill and accessibility to medical care, but at the end of the day it basically feels like an empty, depressing movie that simply says “society is bad”. You might think that you won’t care about the movie’s weak social commentary and you just want to turn your brain off and feel entertained, but the movie is so insistent on you not turning your brain off that I have a hard time seeing that work (except for the last thirty minutes of the movie, which are actually pretty exceptional).
My big concern with this movie was that it was directed by Todd Phillips, because directing The Hangover trilogy is quite different from directing a movie trying to do as much as Joker. Well, I hate to tell you that my worries were justified. Phillips struggles the most in small scenes (which really are what comprise most of the film) like where two characters are talking or a character dances around in a room, as he lacks the touch necessary to really enlace these with a genuine sense of emotion. When he’s resorting to creating a thriller, he does a far better job. The movie does things with point-of-view that I won’t spoil, but they’re far better examples of actual storytelling risks than any of the character development or violence that’s stirring up controversy in news headlines. And, as I mentioned, those final thirty minutes are almost worth the price of admission alone.
Much like the character himself, Joker is a movie that needs to resort to violence in order to draw attention to itself. Like I said, having violence in a Joker movie is fine, but when that’s almost all there is to talk about in your move? That’s a problem. The reality is that if Joker was released as a normal movie with no connection to the DC brand, people wouldn’t be praising it or trashing it as much as they currently are, and you probably wouldn’t have clicked on this article, either. They would just say, “wow, that’s a pretty good movie!” and move on. That’s the biggest joke of all: Joker is a movie that — despite how great it thinks it is — is merely good, but must rest on the laurels of movies it thinks it’s above in order to find success. But maybe I’m the clown if all I can think about is those final thirty minutes.