There is a scene about two thirds of the way through Joker, when Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck is found outside a hospital by two detectives and briefly questioned. It’s a miniature of all that Joker could have been, and all that it fails to achieve.
The scene is tense and taut, with Fleck responding to questions with barbed hints, and is fabulously undercut by slapstick comedy at its close. You’re left squirming and unsure of your footing, wondering how much control Fleck has over himself, just like the detectives.
What a shame, then, that the rest of this picture’s runtime is so comparatively muddled and confused in its convictions and arguments.
Fleck is a lonely young-ish man, living alone with his aged and increasingly ill mother in 1970s Gotham City, a grotty city overwhelmed by a garbage workers’ strike. One of Joker’s unambiguous successes is its channeling of this sense of place, the awful smells and seediness almost palpably present.
Jobbing as a party clown-for-hire, Fleck suffers from uncontrollable laughter, and is on some six different kinds of medication, we learn from his social worker. Thus begins one of Joker‘s many confusing takes – for a film about mental illness, it’s remarkably happy to throw mentally ill people under the bus, in terms of questions about diminished responsibility.
Cruel coworkers and cuts to government services drive Fleck to despair, and a violent outburst sends him careering towards criminality, while a daft subplot about his potential relationship to young Bruce Wayne unfolds on the sidelines.
Fleck moonlights as a cringe-inducing stand-up comic, fantasises about a neighbour, and generally rages at the world that has reduced him so brutally. When he does lash out, another of the film’s strengths comes to the fore – its violence is impactful, immediate and shockingly brief, with no glamour or punches pulled.
Throughout, Phoenix’s humanity and range are touching. His laughs seem truly compulsive and painful, his mincing deliveries are cloying, and the deranged look in his eyes a warning. He commits wholeheartedly, and deserves praise as such, but there’s none of the layered ambiguity of Ledger’s titanic version of Joker, nor the ribald fun of Nicholson’s.
Instead, we get a timorous drama about mental health cuts, mixed with an attempt at a marginalisation saga, chucked into a comic book origin story. None of these elements succeed, and the blend is off-putting.
It’s hard to escape the feeling that director Todd Phillips and his team were straining every sinew to avoid making a “conventional” comic book movie, here – they’ve confirmed as much in achingly gloating interviews since. It also feels like they could have done with a more thorough re-watch of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy in this universe.
Reframing Gotham as a grotty, realistic city with social strata; recasting the Waynes as one-percenters who the normal people find nauseating; taking aim at political corruption; examining how criminals and the under-represented and ignored overlap; all these were done by Batman Begins alone. Not flawlessly, but with far less of an arrogant air.
That tantalising scene by the hospital will be what lingers in the memory after Joker, aside from the divisive discussions the film has prompted. Phoenix may get another stab at the character, deservedly, but for now Phillips et al have simply crafted a snivelling fan version of a Taxi Driver–King of Comedy mashup, and should perhaps temper their self-congratulation as such.