Movie Guru: Joaquin Phoenix’s ‘Joker’ portrayal misses the mark
Among the film community, there have been mutterings that “Joker” is both wildly dramatic and completely contradictory. Some consider it a masterpiece, led by a bravura performance and possibly a contender for the best film of the year. Others see it as a reprehensible sign of the apocalypse, designed only to inspire violence in equally reprehensible people.
When I finally saw the movie myself, the truth turned out to be far more shocking – “Joker” is incredibly boring.
An unbroken stream of moderate unpleasantness that feels far longer than its two-hour run time, “Joker” quickly grows monotonous and stays that way. There are no heroes, happy moments, or any real hope to be found in this film. Sadly, there’s also no real dramatic tension, thrilling moment, or even social commentary. Joaquin Phoenix does offer one of his usual unhinged, total-commitment performances as the titular character, and if he’d been a supporting player in a more well-rounded movie it might have been riveting. But the same three notes played over and over again inevitably end up boring, no matter how beautifully those notes are played.
Failed comedian Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is living a terrible life in retro Gotham. He gets beaten up a lot, has a strained relationship with his mother (whom he lives with) and longs for a neighbor woman who doesn’t return his affections. Eventually, he snaps.
Cinephiles will easily pick up the numerous film references in the movie, most notably to Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy.” The biggest nod to both is the presence of Robert De Niro as a television personality who earns Fleck’s animosity, a role for which he is tragically miscast. As such, his presence mostly makes you wish you were watching either of the other movies, which are no less dark but considerably more exciting.
Also, “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy” are both more honest with themselves. “Joker” wants nothing more than to make you sympathize with Fleck, but he’s a desperately unpleasant person. Everything about him is desperate, manipulative, or demanding in some way, a state of affairs that can’t be excused by his mental issues. Yes, he’s had a horrible life, but he seems determined to take it out on everyone else.
Phoenix makes him a feral, anarchic figure rather than the washed-out incel he would probably be in real-life. In the hands of a more interesting director that might have been enough. But Phillips insists on seeing him as the hero, rather than giving him the freedom to simply be the protagonist, and that turns the rest of the movie into dead weight.
Either way, Phoenix had big shoes to fill. Jack Nicholson’s Joker and Heath Ledger’s Joker were both legendarily anarchic figures, in part because they were so enigmatic and unpredictable. Mark Hamill’s various animated versions of the Joker are the same. That’s why we remember them.
This Joker, sadly, is just another white man who feels oppressed and reaches for a weapon. Even worse, “Joker” makes his story just as boring and unpleasant as a rant on an online message board.
Jenniffer Wardell is an award-winning movie critic and member of the Denver Film Critics Society. Find her on Twitter at @wardellwriter or drop her a line at email@example.com.
Rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images
Written by Todd Phillips and Scott Silver
Directed by Todd Phillips
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp and more
Grade: One star out of four