Review: Joker

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An utterly artless piece of cinema that is convinced it’s art.

★★

You may be aware that during the press junket for Joker, director Todd Phillips made some “interesting” comments on why he moved away from comedies to direct this latest DC venture. This involved complaints about the “woke culture” we live in, and how it drove him from creating comedy films, which set an uneasy tone right before release. Yet, this actually might be the funniest thing that Phillips has ever produced, but not in the way that the director of all three Hangover films (yes, they made three) might have intended.

The quote in question is so utterly tone-deaf, pandering and inane that I can’t help but laugh. In fact, this quote elicited a more emotional response from me than the entirety of Joker. If I could sum up that film in only one word, it would be “waste”.

Set in an 80s Gotham City, oozing with urban decay, Joker follows clown-for-hire Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) as he slowly spirals into insanity – in tandem with the city around him. There is not a single scene in the film where Arthur is not present. Joaquin Phoenix carries this story entirely with his portrayal, which captures all the idiosyncratic details and nuances of mental illness. Such a shame, then, that the script is so atrociously written that it all falls so completely flat.

The performance is extraordinary, while the on-paper character is merely a mix of Travis Bickle and Tyler Durden, without even a whiff of subtlety. (One of the climactic scenes of Joker culminates with Arthur giving a rant about society, to audible groans). Alongside Phoenix, the cast is riddled with other talented actors, who are trying their best with the flat, obtuse characters written for them. Brett Cullen, Frances Conroy, even Robert DeNiro puts the effort in for the first time in years.

But the most significant offence is Zazie Beetz, whose character is supposedly Arthur’s love interest. This character implies Todd Phillips and Scott Silver wrote her as anything besides “set dressing”. The film shamelessly apes the late-70s/early-80s anarchic classics such as the previously mentioned Taxi Driver, with little regard as to why those films were so successful.

What’s more tragic is the clear passion and skill of the remaining filmmakers who chose to work on Joker, outside of Phillips, Silver and the greatest offence, Martin Scorsese (the producer).
Lawrence Sher, the cinematographer, has an exceptional eye. His framing makes up for in visual storytelling what the script lacks in… you know, actual storytelling. Hildur Guðnadóttir, who composed the score, manages to create music that blends seamlessly with Phoenix’s performance, making Arthur’s descent feel more grounded and emotive.

The production designer, Mark Friedberg, has brilliant attention to detail that hammers home this Gotham aesthetic. The mounds of rubbish on the street corners, the claustrophobic streets and looming buildings – all help fill in for the writing’s weaknesses in worldbuilding and scale. Talented industry professionals; whose talents were wasted on a hollow, cynically-produced film that lacks any self-awareness or depth.

Returning to waste, what makes Joker even more irritatingly bad is how it’s the exact film I thought DC should be making back in 2016 when Batman v Superman was stumbling into cinemas with all the grace and subtlety of a chainsaw autopsy. More character-focused, niche adaptations of comic book material are what the industry desperately needs. And as a proof-of-concept, Joker does succeed in that regard. But the bare minimum should never be worthy of applause.

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