So I saw Joker...
Posted: Posted December 16th, 2019 by Jet Presto
Wound up watching Joker at a second-run theater. Mostly because they serve dinner and I was hungry.
I think the film is well acted, although I can't figure out if Joaquin Phoenix or Adam Driver (in Marriage Story) did the *most* acting in their respective films. Some of my disinterest in this film is innate to the basic premise. Joker is one of those characters (like Wolverine) wherein the more we find out about their backstory, the less interesting I find them. These historically mysterious characters, or who became popular in part because of their mysterious back story, don't often benefit from having it get filled in.
There are things about the film I appreciate. I do think it's overall a well made film, even if I find it at times incoherent. I can appreciate that they don't shoot things in a very different way to signify when something is just happening in his head. If one were suffering from actual delusions, it'd be pretty tricky to tell what is real and what is not, so it makes sense to film it that way too. What is a little hard though is that so much of the beginning is almost comically stacked against him (he gets beat up and his sign is stolen, the woman scolds him on the bus, he gets in trouble at work, et cetera). It's sooo over the top "look at how awful everyone is to him" that it could have all been in his head. But that took place before he stopped getting access to his medication, so as it is presented in the film, it seems like that was just over-the-top rather than potentially "from his perspective, which you can't trust."
There's a lot about the film that feels like...I just have no idea what Todd Phillips is trying to say. About anything.
He essentially tries to convince us that it's not a political film. Joker says that he doesn't believe in anything a few times, and I think Phillips himself has tried to argue his film isn't political here and there. But the film is clearly political. It clearly lifts a lot of current political and social discourse for the backdrop and, arguably, causation of everything in the film. It pulls class politics in as the background. It deals with austerity a bit. It definitely puts mental illness and social responses to it front and center. And he literally makes Joker this movie's version of Bernhard Goetz. But really, it's hard to know what exactly the politics are.
In one breath, he is effectively pulling from leftist protest movements to show that they are violent and hostile folks eager to loot, riot, and fight. In another, he depicts the wealthy as being cold, insulting elitists. He then occasionally depicts the systems that are supposed to help folks as being innately ineffective. Then later, depicts austerity (budget cuts) making things even harder for people. And, most frustratingly of all: if the film is kind of trying to say anything about something, it feels awfully much like it's trying to suggest we take a more compassionate approach to people, especially folks with mental illness. It depicts someone with mental illness being treated inhumanely at almost every step of the way, which only serves to worsen his condition, increase his feeling of isolation, and prevent him from getting proper treatment. But...the entire film is one giant stigmitization of mental illness. For all the "the world just keeps beating him down and everyone piles on him" that occurs, the Joker's behavior is ultimately boiled down to having mental illness that includes delusions and narcissism.
I thiiiink he's trying to show how hard it is for folks with mental illness? And I can appreciate that, but it's so poorly done and the entire film is essentially making the argument that people with mental illness should be feared! That they are innately more dangerous. There's very little nuance to it. And not much is ultimately made about the ways that systems and institutions hurt such folks or make it worse. Instead, he kind of just uses them as one more example, but spends more time focusing on individual transgressions. It *almost* feels like Todd Phillips would look at a school shooting and go, "Well the kid was bullied. We should blame the kids who bullied him." Like, there's maybe a grain there worth consideration, it takes away accountability of the folks who commit acts of violence. And here, it doesn't really even say anything that clear or worthwhile about either mental illness or the ways we view mental illness that are problematic.
There's also this weird bit that feels very Todd Phillips-y in which Joker tells a "joke" in which he basically just says, "Your son died after being hit by a drunk driver!" And the woman next to him goes, "You can't joke about that!" It's weirdly presented in this way that feels like more of an indictment on the woman or Robert De Niro for being like, "We don't joke about stuff like that," rather than acknowledging that it wasn't even a joke! Even most offensive comics claim you can joke about any topic, so long as it's funny. This sequence admittedly might only stand out because of comments the director made on the press tour. I'm just...not really sure what the deal with that scene is? It definitely feels like Phillips taking a shot at people who feel you can't joke about certain topics, but it actually makes a case for why comedians should probably just not try to make jokes about certain topics.
I'm also not entirely sure what the point is of all the dancing. It felt kinda pretentious, and given how much he wants to act like this movie (which also clearly pulls from some of the most critically acclaimed comics about the Joker) isn't a comic book movie, it kinda just feels in there to be like, "SEE? IT'S AN ARTY FILM!" (For the love of god, the last line of the film is "you wouldn't get it.") And I have to admit: I don't totally understand why it takes place when it does. The bit where De Niro is making fun of Arthur on his program is clearly meant to be a comment about internet dogpiling; but this stuff is kind of unique to modern technology. Because everyone is filming themselves and others and putting it online, things do go viral and pile-ons do happen on social media. But that didn't really happen like this in that time period. It kinda just winds up feeling forced. Like it takes place in that era because that's when Scorcese films took place.
I think some of the concern in the lead up to the film was understandable. The trailers really do make it look like it's going to be a film that kind of excuses toxic masculinity or white male entitlement. Worse, it looks like it might even do some victim blaming ("he wouldn't have killed those women if they just talked to him!" type stuff). But certainly, that isn't really in the film. And I wouldn't argue that the film itself really "glorifies" the violence (though even that gets a bit weird when Phillips specifically highlights that so many people *do* glorify his violence - which again, is kind of confusing because he's clearly pulling from leftist protest movements to then support a guy who parallels a right-wing white supremacist who got the backing of right wingers).
It's not a hot mess in the same way that, say, Fantastic Four or Batman v. Superman was. It's constructed well and is mostly a complete film. It's in the themes that it all kind of just falls apart in these haphazard ideas that don't really make sense when tossed in with some of the others found in the film.
I dunno. It's a bit fascinating to try and figure out what the hell Todd Phillips is actually trying to do, besides mash up King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, but it's kind of thematically incohesive and all over the place and contradictory. By no means the worst comic book movie ever, or even the worst movie I've seen all year. But dang. This thing wound up being bad and, for my money, problematic for completely different reasons than all the "discourse" suggested.
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