If ever there was a movie that set the bar high for itself, it’s Joker. We’ve been mercilessly inundated with critical praise for the movie ever since it scored big at festivals, and I’m sure quite a few people will go see Joker simply because they’ve been chomping at the bit to tear it a new asshole.
Well, I’m here to tear asshole and chew popcorn…and I’m all out of popcorn.
Before my review, which I will say up front is mostly positive, there are a few things I need to get off my chest…
First of all: don’t take your kids to see this movie, at least not before you’ve already seen it once yourself. Unless you’re the sort of “enlightened” parent who allows their nine-year-old child to watch Lars von Trier films because depressing the shit out of their tiny little souls is somehow healthy, this is a situation where you’ll want to hire a babysitter. There were a few parents in the twelve-person audience I watched Joker with, and they seemed absolutely mortified by their parental choices at around the thirty-minute mark. Joker isn’t in the same gallery as The Dark Knight or (thank fucking God) Suicide Squad. This is DC at its most DCish, more so than Batman v. Superman, and as comic fans know, DC can be one hell of a dark place.
Second: don’t be the asshole who talks, texts, claps or “woo-hoo’s” during pivotal scenes in Joker. I get that you’re likely to feel excited about certain moments, and your first impulse is to whisper to the person next to you about how only fans of the comics will understand references to certain storylines, but don’t be a dick.
I’ll start by telling you something you’re likely already aware of, and that’s the fact that Joker doesn’t feature a whole lot of our favorite villain’s classic shenanigans. To put it in delicious beer terms, this movie takes place in Not Your Father’s Gotham, and this is Not Your Father’s Joker. Impressive visuals, clever villain dialogue, and multiple twists was Christopher Nolan’s bag of tricks; Todd Phillips is more interested in heavy-handed depression, hopelessness, and cigarette brand loyalty.
As Steve Miller Band once played, “I’m a Joker, I’m a Smoker, I’m…deeply depressed and ready to crack at any moment.”
When I went into the movie, I was under the impression Todd Phillips’s Joker wasn’t going to have anything at all to do with the DC Universe, with the exception of a few character names and locations. Yes, the trailer mentioned Gotham and the Wayne family, and we certainly got a clear view of Arkham Asylum’s exterior, but all of the early reviews made it seem like Joker eschewed almost everything else about Bob Kane’s creation. However, several moments throughout the movie are very clearly inspired by the DC source material, and there are even a few quotes that are extremely similar to graphic novels that are held as classics by Batman fans. For the sake of avoiding spoilers, I’ll caution you to refrain from “expecting” these moments; enjoy them for what they are, and if you happen to catch them and feel something special because of it, let that be the icing on the proverbial cake.
Joker stands pretty well on its own as a character study, which seems to be what the director was after. The protagonist, Arthur Fleck, is a pretty sad guy throughout most of the film, even during the rare moments when he’s getting what he wants. The first act of the movie succeeds in making us sympathize for him, though we spend a good chunk of time cringing at the awkwardness caused by his mental illness. I’m not one for research, so I’m not going to bother looking up the proper name for it, but Fleck’s condition causes painful and uncontrollable bursts of laughter without any specific trigger. He’s so used to being mocked for his condition that he even carries around a laminated card with an explanation of his sickness written on it, that way he has something to show to strangers when they shield their children during his outbursts or give him threatening glares. Truth be told, I spent the first half of the movie wanting to give the poor guy a hug and tell him everything’s not so bad.
But it’s hard to not see the world of the film as terribly as Fleck does. He struggles with a sickness nobody cares much about treating, he has trouble separating reality from fantasy, and even the self-proclaimed “Last Hope of Gotham,” Thomas Wayne, is pretty despicable person behind closed doors.
Make no mistake, though; while Joker seeks our sympathy for Fleck’s condition, it doesn’t glorify his actions. I don’t see how anyone could watch this movie and think, “Now there’s a guy I identify with! There’s a guy I want people to see me as!” This isn’t Heath Ledger’s anarchistic genius who everyone quoted 24/7 during 2008, nor is it Leto’s “bad boy gangster,” or even Hamill’s whacky and chaotic criminal mastermind. Fleck is, for lack of kinder terms, pretty pathetic. Whether he was made this way by society or by a failed health care system, the person he becomes is not somebody a real-life struggling person would want to identify with. On the contrary, I think it’s pretty clear that he’s a mentally ill person’s worst nightmare, the kind of person they deeply fear they’ll become if they ever don’t have the help they need or if they have “one bad day” in front of the wrong people and no longer feel any semblance of hope for their healing journey. I’m treading on some spoiler territory here, so I’ll step carefully: this is the version of the Joker we’ve seen numerous times in the source material but tend to forget about in favor of romanticizing madness, the version who’s perfectly aware of how fucked up he is but sees himself as a lost cause.
Other viewers may disagree and pull something completely different from the movie than I did. As I said in previous reviews, I’m just a regular ass dude who watches movies and blurts opinions, so what the hell do I really know anyway?
I’ve read a few negative reviews of Joker since seeing it myself. Quite a few people seem to find the film condescending, which I sort of get. I hope these reviewers find an ice pack for their sore bottoms, or maybe Buffalo Bill will lend them some thicker skin. Another reviewer called Joker a loud movie with nothing to say…and this is where I have a bone to pick.
The movie very, very clearly does have something to say. And it was something well worth saying, regardless of how it’s interpreted. Were these people just not listening? From the very first image, where he literally forces himself to smile through his tears, Fleck seems to represent the impossibility of perseverance through mental illness when the proper resources simply aren’t available. Take my opinion with a huge dick-shaped grain of salt, but I think this was what the movie as a whole was saying.
Fleck’s struggle in the first half of the movie reminds me a little of Marilyn Manson’s quote from Bowling for Columbine. When asked what he would say to the school shooters, whose names aren’t even worth mentioning in this review, Manson famously replied, “I wouldn’t say anything. I would’ve listened, which is what no one else did.” Fleck makes a similar accusation quite a few times during the movie, and he lays it on pretty thick in the third act. He’s extremely open with how lonely, alienated, and angry he feels every single moment of every single day, but every time he starts to open up and seek help (even going into Arkham Asylum and telling a clerk he’s far from okay), he’s either mocked or dismissed. A few of the dismissals ring very true. Stop me if you’ve heard these before, or any variations: “If you’re so sick, why don’t you get professional help?” “There are places you can go for stuff like this, and it’s your fault for not figuring out how to afford it!” “I get that you have an illness, and that you can’t help it…but you make everyone uncomfortable.”
Fleck is asked by his therapist, before the resource is abruptly taken away, to keep a journal about his feelings. He wrote one thing that I’m sure rings especially true for anyone who suffers from mental illnesses, but being that I don’t have the screenplay in front of me, I can only do my best to get it verbatim: “The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.”
It’s been pointed out ever since trailers for Joker were released that correlating mental illness with violent behavior, even if you’re not directly calling it causation, is problematic. The finale of Joker, while absolutely satisfying from a DC fan’s perspective, is also a little bit of a letdown if you’re hoping for some sort of happy resolution or a positive message for real-life individuals suffering from mental illness. However, this is a movie about the man who becomes Joker, and Joker has never been a beacon of hope for the mentally ill, at least not in any iteration that I’ve seen or read.
Without being too overt in its message, the movie seems to simultaneously point an accusatory finger at the failing mental wellness system while also arguing that mental conditions, however extreme, are no excuse for the violent decisions made by the victims of a failed system. One tactic which helps the movie walk the line is the unreliable presentation of reality. We’re seeing everything from Fleck’s point of view, and his reality seems to be an adventure in cherry picking, whether it’s to make himself feel good for a moment or to reinforce his identity as a victim of society. Whether this works in the overall film’s favor or not is subjective, but I didn’t really mind the ambiguity. If anything, it may start a discussion about the state of mental wellness systems in the real world, and that’s pretty neat.
Just remember, if you feel triggered, keep repeating to yourself: “It’s only a film…it’s only a film…”
Come for an artsy-fartsy character study which both exploits and honors a diehard DC fan base, stay for the well-placed fan service and one-of-a-kind Joker origin story that perfectly fits with a famous quote from The Killing Joke, “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice.”
I give this movie 7/10 Crying Clowns. Not bad, but not “The Best Thing Since ‘Shark Repellent,’” either.