Review: Cynical Fantasies and Vapid Depictions of Violence In ‘Joker’ Produces Nothing but Trash Cinema

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“When I was a little boy, and told everybody I was gonna be a comedian, everyone laughed at me. Well, no one’s laughing now.”

We started a joke. And a bad one at that. Dejected by the one-size-fits-all output from major studios, we asked super hero films to be better, and somehow we ended up here, with Todd Phillip’s Joker: a gritty character study that commentates on society at large through one man’s downward spiral into violent tendencies. Garnering plenty of forward momentum from surprise selections at film festivals, a top prize Golden Lion win at Venice, and a cavalcade of press calling it a dangerously provocative film, Joker is well on its way to being an awards contender for all the wrong reasons. 

While there are auteurist pipe dreams to bring art house tendencies to the superhero genre, Phillips forgot to bring the craft to do so. What’s put forth is an ignorant display of cheap mimicry and caricature that exposes fundamental misunderstandings in empathy and human emotion by the writer-directer. It is the appropriation of better films without any of the skill, making it a two hour clown show of cynical fantasy and askew social narratives that ring hollow at every level. Joker is, and I can’t stress this enough, abject trash cinema.

To unpack what is so blatantly wrong with the film, it’s best to set the stage. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a deeply troubled man. The psychopath that will eventually become the Joker has mental health issues, poor social skills, and an impoverished home life. In spite of all this, he pursues a career as a clown to make people happy. But the world rejects his attempts and beats him down. So much so that he snaps and takes on unprincipled virtues that lead him to an eventual accent to the clown prince of Gotham. 

The opening scene sees a pack of feral juveniles stealing Arthur’s sign, smashing it over his head, and then beating him up, a sequence of events that wants you believe this is how society functions, that society has devolved all the way down and tainted the children, that this is truly the terrible world we inhabit, that this is the reality we are creating. And then in massive block text across the entire scene, “JOKER” appears and Todd Phillips plants his flag. The film’s moral compass is set with a self-assured confidence, and right then and there you know this movie is going to be a calamity.

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This vapid depiction of society is one where people are mercilessly mean, rude, and cruel without explanation. Phillips wants you to believe this environment is truth so badly that he will repeat supporting evidence with no distinction. He will show incident after incident of society being mean to Arthur without hesitation, but do we really buy this fantasy? It’s nothing more than a greatest hits compilation of an edgy teenager’s notebook containing all the recorded grievances carried out against him, but lacking any of the context to explain why these infractions are actually hurtful beyond the biased viewpoint presented. 

It’s literally a mile wide and an inch thick. Phillips can show cruelty, but he cannot justify it, and what we get is a pornographic dump of meaningless brutality. Arthur, a character with intentionally minimal moral alignment, is supposed to be empathized with. Not only is there a off-beat depiction of mental health as a driver of violence, but also Arthur brings much of his own pain on himself, so if a film wants us to buy into wrong-doing against Arthur, how are we supposed to believe it, especially when this whole production is predicated on it?

Comic book films are already among the least interesting, and arguably worst, studios have to offer, but this film is next level insulting. It’s a terrible facsimile of better films that do everything it is trying to do better. The word of mouth is true, Joker borrows heavily from Martin Scorsese, but audiences should watch Taxi Driver first, then see this. Right off the bat, you’ll see how infuriating Joker is, not only for how much it lifts from Scorsese’s picture, but also at just how poorly these themes are mimicked. Anyone who watches that film before this one can see clear as day there is something systematically wrong with this 2019 studio hack job. 

Where Scorsese had nuance, Phillips has excess. Where Marty showed the inherent wrong doings in Travis Bickel’s actions, Todd shows unjustified acts of violence. And where Taxi Driver  could show societal decline without condemning the whole thing, Joker throws everything out with the bath water and says there is nothing worth saving, you as the audience helped produce this, so go squad up with the crazy clown lunatic leading an uprising and make everything worse. The slacker in class tried to copy valedictorian almost word-for-word, and ended up missing the point by a country mile.

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“That’s not what Philips was going for. He’s diverging from Scorsese and saying something new!” Ya, and he’s conveying it with subtlety of an airhorn. Joker wants to point out how far society has declined and decided to do so by aggressively shoving meaningless acts of violence down your throat with no bearing on reality. Truly a comic book adaptation based on pulp fiction, not a lick of sensibility or sensitivity to actual human emotions. Todd Philips, a man he himself says was pushed out of comedy for not being “woke,” decided to reach for ‘auteur’ cinema, but just ousted himself. A less than stellar press junket proves how he fails to grasp basic concepts or how to read a room, and that shows in the final product.

Lastly, this film isn’t even provocative. Lars Von Tier is screaming into the void at headlines reaching for sensational click-bate. Pasolini is rolling in his grave at how audiences are so easily spurred into thinking this is provocative cinema. Gaspar is smashing his head into a wall at the thought that this is the new bar for what’s acceptable on film. I truly cannot stress enough how relatively tame this is after reading so many headlines about how disturbing it was supposed to be, let alone ineffective at what it is trying to reach for. The only reason this film is considered “dangerous” is because of: A) the symbolic iconography the Joker has adopted in the wake of The Dark Knight, and B) the mass audience reach the film will have that those other directors never had. The discourse around this film is so hyperbolic, so vitriolic, so divisive that I can’t take it anymore. I want to throw all of it in the trash along with this disease ridden film.

In some ways the film is ironically the embodiment of what it is trying to say. We berate superhero films, studios react, and we get this: masses flocking to a psychopathic failure and holding it up as a new era in cinema. It is, and I cannot stress this enough, the most infuriating film of the year not only in part because of how poorly executed it is, but also because it’s going to make people think this is what we need: one big cynical fantasy that is nothing more than a cartoonish rendition of a world with no basis in reality. We start a joke and now the whole world’s crying at how we let this happen.