Freitag, 18. Oktober 2019

Holes and Pegs, or: Todd Phillips vs. "Joker"

"And aren't these … the same little film-makers who are so convinced of their importance that they can scarcely conceive of a five-minute film which doesn't end with what they, no doubt, regard as the ultimate social comment: the mushroom cloud rising." – Pauline Kael, "Circles and Squares" (1963)

Heading into another long, ostensibly wide-open awards season, the stage has already been set for a whole host of debates that will likely dominate critical discourse for the next few months – from Martin Scorsese's thoughts on Marvel to yet another rendition of the eternal Oscar struggle between traditional biopics and 'prestige' productions to the question whether Bong Joon-ho's Parasite can charm the notoriously U.S.-centric Academy. (Hope dies last.)

However, perhaps the most prevalent cinematic point of contention at the moment is what to make of Joker, a strikingly pared-down, 'realistic' take on the origins of the titular Batman villain. The film staged an upset at this year's Venice Film Festival, taking home the top prize, and has since courted nothing but controversy: it's been called "dangerous" for its allegedly celebratory depiction of white-male fury and violence – and has been fêted for it in the more disreputable corners of the Internet. There was talk of police and military presence at screenings, for fear of Joker-inspired mass shootings – fears that were not exactly allayed when director Todd Phillips, of dubious The Hangover fame, made the ludicrous claim that "woke culture," or "political correctness," has rendered making comedy impossible.

In an increasingly polarised media environment, which mirrors the ideological and political polarisation of society at large, this makes the relative value of a movie like Joker especially difficult to assess. The narratives that spring up around it become self-perpetuating: there's nothing to stop online misogynists from declaring this their sacred text – least of all a director parroting the talking points of right-wing trolls – which in turn makes praising the film's undeniable merits a cumbersome exercise in beating around the bush. This is hardly a recent development: David Fincher's Fight Club is now in its 20th year of being misread by so-called men's rights activists as a masculinist manifesto. But what is particularly frustrating about Joker is that, ultimately, it is little more than a mediocre movie – an intriguing idea poorly executed, whose significance is massively inflated by the noise that surrounds it.

By day, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is an out-of-luck party clown.
© Warner Bros. Ent.
Set in 1981, Joker tells the story of downtrodden party clown Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix): living with his reclusive mother (Frances Conroy) in a dingy apartment following a stint in a mental institution, Arthur aspires to follow in the footsteps of his TV idol, talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), and become a stand-up comedian. He is hampered in this endeavour, however, by forces outside of his control: he has trouble connecting with people, partly because of a medical condition that makes him break out in shrill compulsive laughter in moments of extreme emotional stress; and he falls straight through Gotham City's social safety net, as the underfunded office designed to help him deal with his psychological issues is marred by overworked staff and in the process of being economised out of existence.

In essence, Todd Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver have remixed two Martin Scorsese classics – 1976's Taxi Driver and 1983's The King of Comedy, both starring Robert De Niro – into an origin story of a towering figure of the American comic book canon, who, not least through his screen incarnations in the forms of Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, and Heath Ledger, has reached the status of a universally recognisable arch-villain.

It's a nifty move, not approaching this character from the standpoint of an over-codified comic book adaptation – a "theme park ride," as Scorsese would call it – or even the moody genre revisionism of James Mangold's Logan (2017) or Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, but through the lens of a New Hollywood drama – a mode fascinated by the social mechanisms that turn people into what the public perceives as heroes and villains. It's unquestionably innovative, the very definition of thinking outside the parameters of received box-office wisdom. It is also, however, indicative of why this experiment ultimately ends in failure, because the two – the Joker and the New Hollywood drama – prove themselves to be a fundamentally incompatible pairing. In fact, Joker as a whole is a cautionary tale of what happens when square pegs are forced into round holes with reckless abandon.

By night, Arthur dreams of being a famous stand-up comedian.
© Warner Bros. Ent.
This is not to say that there is nothing worthwhile being attempted here. Indeed, much of what does resonate in Joker is a direct result of its empathetic casting of Arthur Fleck as an especially unlucky everyman failed by the institutions that are supposed to protect people like him. As a broad indictment of how capitalism, through its ruthless emphasis on profit ratios, marginalises those who do not fit into its conception of success, the movie even taps into an anger that feels justified and fiercely contemporary, yet in keeping with its period setting – the early years of neoliberal Reaganomics.

The problem is that, despite the film's best efforts to convince us of the opposite, none of this ever coalesces into anything concrete, anything coherent. For all its posturing, for all its grandstanding in the face of "society," for all its dramatic close-ups and ponderous slow-motion shots of Joaquin Phoenix's emaciated torso, Joker is shockingly light on actual thematic substance. With the empty cynicism of a teenager rooting for Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight (2008), it lets its anti-establishment streak descend into violent chaos, which it seems reluctant to take a decisive stance on and whose only in-universe alternative appears to be dismissive classism. All the while, Arthur turns out to be a less than ideal target for the audience's empathy because, well, he is the Joker and he kills people for fun.

One could make the case that this clumsy shotgun marriage between an irredeemable comic book psychopath and a narrative that masquerades as a sincere exploration of mental health issues under runaway capitalism is actually a transgressive challenge to established tastes and conventions. But Joker fails as subversive provocation just as much as it fails as serious drama because it is full of these kinds of glaring mismatches, which infect both the storytelling and the filmmaking.

Arthur's hero is TV comedian Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro).
© Warner Bros. Ent.
Take Joaquin Phoenix's widely praised lead performance, which is undoubtedly a tour de force: harking back to the raw, rough-hewn physicality he brought to Lynne Ramsay's You Were Never Really Here (2018), Phoenix imbues every one of Arthur's downcast flinches, awkward shuffles, and stylised grimaces with the air of dramatic deliberation, to a point where there is almost a silent-movie quality about him – which is fitting, given that the Joker was originally inspired by a character played by the Weimar Republic star Conrad Veidt. This strangely emphatic turn hints at an intriguing way of thinking about Arthur Fleck, suggesting that he, too, is "never really here," that all we get to see is in fact a persona, an act, a routine he pieced together by watching TV and observing the people around him. In Phoenix's interpretation, we see an Arthur who is not so much – or at least not exclusively – the victim of an uncaring world as he is playing at being one, having lost the ability or the inclination to access genuine emotion.

That might have been a powerful and truly disturbing frame for a Joker origin story. But as it stands, Phoenix's reading is fundamentally at odds with the vision of Phillips and Silver, who, in structure and staging, have opted for a straightforward character study: heaping misfortune upon misfortune, indignity upon indignity, Joker's interminable second act is devoted entirely to chronicling Arthur's apparent descent into aggrieved, murderous madness, even though on the performance level, he seems to have already reached the metaphorical bottom by the time the movie starts. In this light, much of what Phoenix does loses its potential lustre: under Phillips' direction, his ostentatious laughing fits and spontaneous post-murder dances aren't darkly ambiguous but cloying, repetitive, and embarrassingly pretentious annoyances.

As the Joker, Arthur gains notoriety in Gotham City.
© Warner Bros. Ent.
Time and again, the individual parts of Joker chafe against the whole they have been assembled into. Like Phoenix, DP Lawrence Sher's expressively lit shots hint at depth but are trapped in an utterly flat film, used to little effect beyond giving the viewer something vaguely aesthetic to look at. Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, who has previously lent her cello skills to the most remarkable scores of the late Jóhann Jóhannsson (Prisoners, Sicario, Arrival), is also shortchanged by a movie that deploys her brilliantly atmospheric musical accompaniments – and the soundtrack department's canny song choices – with all the subtlety and care of a sledgehammer, robbing promising moments of their poignancy by overloading and diluting them with blunt emotional shorthand – partially, one would assume, because Phillips does not seem to have a concrete notion of what is going on inside his main character.

Indeed, contrary to general discourse, Joker's greatest sin is not that it is incendiary or "dangerous" or supportive of anarchist violence in the streets. In fact, it isn't really any of these things, though it is clearly enamoured with the idea that it might be – the breathless, bloody escalation of the third act, which culminates in the climactic image of the Joker standing Christ-like on top of a wrecked police car, suggests as much. But at the end of the day, all of this is empty posturing, a movie that acts – and by all accounts thinks – that it has something to say politically and artistically, when it is merely a showcase for aimless nihilism and a director hopelessly out of his depth.

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