The Joker is the worst kind of joke

Emma Seely, Managing Editor

“What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash? “ muses the titular character in director and co-writer Todd Philip’s new film “The Joker.” In a late 1970s ( or early 1980s) Gotham City plagued by social issues that are not as much named as they are implied, isolated, mentally ill and rock bottom reaching Arthur Fleck has no choice but to become the villain this society has forced him to be. 


It’s an interesting concept with real potential to make a timely point about those people who fall between the cracks, but in Philip’s hands, all this promise falls flat. Instead of a nuanced examination of the intersections between trauma, crime and responsibility, we get something that hits closer to a melodramatic, and only vaguely related, string of beatdowns followed by a villain transformation that’s been done better elsewhere. So, what do we get when we sit down for a two-hour-plus origin story that thinks it’s much more important than it is? Maybe we get what’s coming to us.


In hopes of avoiding the type of overwhelming pessimism that relentlessly fuels “The Joker,” I’ll start by mentioning everything the film does right. The highlight is, by far, Joaquin Phoenix’s striking lead performance as Fleck / The Joker. He puts every ounce of his all into the performance, physically and emotionally, and that itself brings the film’s worth close to the price of admission. The cinematography is hauntingly beautiful, too. And, there’s some really good stuff about the dismissal of mental illness and those who work towards it. 


The problem, though, is that all this good becomes overwhelmed by a film that doesn’t really know what it’s trying to say but continues to say it to exhaustion. We’re told again and again that society is the real villain, or at least a significant part of the problem, but the issues that Fleck and the city’s more revolutionary sect respond to include such timely concepts as garbage, rich people, and rude television hosts. We are believably shown how ill-equipped Gotham is to handle Arthur’s mental illness, but Phillips seems to claim that there is more at stake here, although I’m still not sure exactly what he means. Is it income inequality that the people of Gotham are protesting against? Police brutality? That’s never made clear. Instead of dealing in specifics- specific problems or specific responses to those problems – we get a film filled with vague struggles and confusion that is only sometimes deliberate. 


Philips wants to disorient his audience alongside his protagonist’s increasing disorientation, and he does so by playing with reality to the point that the viewer is often unable to decipher what is happening and what is not. This confusion is partially because the rules of reality versus illusion here are constantly changing, or else never really established in the first place. By the end of the film, Philips has leaned so far into his nifty but meaningless trick that he forgets to let us in on why any of this matters. 


When the final credits rolled, I left my seat not thinking about my place in the “society” that Philips loves so much, but instead about why the film had to be so very long. It’s fun and exciting to see Phoenix commit himself to a role like he does here, so if nothing else brave this 122-minute embodiment of the “we live in a society” meme to see a master actor at the height of his prime work his magic. 


Or, save yourself the trouble and just rewatch “The Dark Knight” instead.