Think of “Joker” as both dental drill and Novocain. This origin story of the famously depraved smiler deals in pain from start to finish—pain that the hero,
first suffers, then inflicts—and
plays the title role with piercing intensity. Yet the film, directed by
leaves you numb. And glum. Days after the screening I was still under its stultifying spell.
How can that be? Why should such a remarkable performance, so many spectacular images (the cinematographer was
) and such vaulting pretensions to social commentary (the writers were Mr. Phillips and
) amount to not much? The answer may lie in the movie’s relentless manipulativeness. Literal pain can’t be transmitted from screen to audience, but anxiety can, and the production is a nonstop generator of anxiety, a poor substitute for dramatic intricacy. If you’re feeling insufficiently anxious in your life, “Joker” could be just the ticket. If not, look elsewhere to be entertained.
For almost 80 years the Joker has dominated the pantheon of comic-book villainy—not just as
nemesis, played most memorably on the big screen by
Heath Ledger and
but as an endlessly renewable repository of evil leavened by zestful trickery and diabolical humor. Although stories of his origin have been spun before, this one declines to settle for facile explanations like facial disfigurement by acid. It sets Arthur down on his own—an antihero deprived of an adversary—in a Gotham City whose civic rot and physical blight conspire with his mental decay to transform him. (And connects him artfully to the Batman to come in the person of a young
played touchingly by
) Grievously unwell in the head, failing to flourish despite taking seven medications, eking out a living as a party clown, poor Arthur presents an irresistible target for brutes, and this is not a movie that flinches from brutality.
“I was put here to spread joy and laughter,” he says; it’s a cherished delusion that he got from his delusional mother, Penny (
). Mr. Phoenix might have been put here to play Arthur. His portrayal is brilliant and all-encompassing: the compulsive, mirthless laugh that shrivels into a cackle, and may or may not be a physical affliction; the thin voice emanating from an emaciated chest; the haunted eyes that flicker without flashing; the lyrical gyrations—
minus a coherent narrative—that precede Arthur’s explosions into mad violence. (A word is also in order for the exquisite score, by
which raises lamentation to the level of art.)
Yet events leading up to this helpless victim’s lashing out at his persecutors, and to his transformation from Arthur to Joker, feel coldly contrived, even as they promise to make sense of the chaos that surrounds us in what passes for real life.
Scenes and entire sections have been conceived as homages to motion pictures of the 1970s or early 1980s, when “Joker” is set, especially such
landmarks as “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy.” In a role-reversing riff on the latter film, Mr. Phoenix plays a version of the character originally played by
Robert de Niro,
while this time around Mr. De Niro is the Johnny Carson-like host played earlier by
The result is scary but eerily lifeless, and raises the question of when homage becomes mere imitation, if not misappropriation of superior material.
Other questions flow from the mass movement that Arthur creates without meaning to. It’s a seductive concept. Once he starts stalking the streets in full Joker regalia, he becomes infamous as a kill-the-rich vigilante—a description that seems arbitrary and unearned—and the virus of his violence spreads to other aggrieved citizens who don masks of their own, coursing through Gotham in angry mobs. A chase sequence set in a subway becomes a sight gag on a huge scale, as cops try to find the real Joker amid hundreds of Joker wannabes. The spectacle is reminiscent of the everyone-is-wearing-a-bowler-hat scene in the 1999 remake of “The Thomas Crown Affair,” but the populist uprising as a whole made me think of the John Doe Clubs that formed across the nation in the
classic “Meet John Doe.” Fraudulent though their genesis proved to be, those clubs and their members stood for good neighborliness and charity. What do Joker’s followers represent? The only answer seems to be nihilist grievance, which makes the concept as hollow as the movie that surrounds it.
The most obvious question that “Joker” raises concerns gun violence. At a time when the nation seems helpless to stop mass shootings, do we need another movie, however fanciful, in which a lunatic shooter kills innocent people at random? Of course not, but no one knows enough about causal links between violence on and off screen to say that such films shouldn’t be made or seen. A more manageable question is how much we need movies, however stylish and stunningly performed, that make us feel next to nothing. “Joker” is one of them, and the answer is not at all.
Write toJoe Morgenstern at[email protected]
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