A humiliated street clown turns violent.
The new Joker “wants to be a movie about the emptiness of our culture,” said Stephanie Zacharek in Time. “Instead, it’s a prime example of it.” Joaquin Phoenix aggressively overacts as a mentally ill loner who works for a rent-a-clown company and lives with his mother in a crime-ridden Gotham City. Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck dreams of becoming a comedian, but he’s so often humiliated while on his job that he snaps and begins killing people. “There’s a mass shooting by a guy like Arthur practically every other week, and yet we’re supposed to feel sympathy for the troubled lamb; he just hasn’t had enough love.” Because his first victims are some Wall Street bros who’d attacked him on the subway, he even becomes a folk hero in a “Kill the rich” mass revolt.
But Todd Phillips’ blockbuster “deserves to be judged outside of the culture war that’s sprung up around it,” said A.A. Dowd in AVClub.com. Joker probably will resonate with the wrong crowd, “but Taxi Driver has been doing that for decades.” At least this is a visually compelling comic book–inspired movie. It delivers “one powerhouse image after another” even as it abstains from any use of CGI-aided action. And to me, Phoenix’s performance is “riveting.” The actor shed 52 pounds to play this psychopathic wraith who moves in jerks and spasms and bursts into cackling laughter at the most inappropriate moments. Unfortunately, the conception of the character “doesn’t run much deeper than the makeup Arthur slathers across his face.” He’s broken from the start; there’s no reason to even hope that he won’t explode.
The movie’s uncertainty about how to present Arthur’s violence feels “profoundly dangerous,” said David Ehrlich in IndieWire.com. The film compels us to root for the triumph of a homicidal narcissist and his dark outlook, and because it is also “an immaculately crafted piece of mass entertainment,” it’s going to spark hysterical arguments from both admirers and detractors. But “here’s the deal”— Joker is not a work of art; “it’s a product,” said Anthony Lane in The New Yorker. Instead of attempting anything worthwhile, like a dive into our collective unconscious, it “yearns for little more than a hundred op-ed pieces and a firestorm of tweets—with ticket sales, naturally, to match. To vent inordinate wrath toward it is to fall straight into its trap.” ■