The discontinued Saul Bass Warner Brother’s logo that flashed on the screen before I was treated to my first shot of Joker made one fact crystal clear: this is going to be a film heavily influenced by the past. As it progressed however, and I familiarized myself with the grimy, hazy streets of 1980s Gotham City, I could not help but notice a glaring lack of subtlety. Joker’s biggest flaw, one which I had to very reluctantly accept, is how much it loves to wear its influences on its sleeve.
Everything from the shallow social commentary to the misanthropic-and-sort-of-terrifying-but-in-a-likable-sort-of-way persona that Joaquin Phoenix builds for his Joker feels like a blatant rip-off. The film takes themes from classic character studies like Taxi Driver (which is almost understandable considering how Scorsese was a producer in the early stages of production), extracts the most superficial of elements it can from these themes, and spits out a vapid result. Perhaps my favorite example of this is the journal/joke book that Fleck carries, and the all too obvious parallels it draws with Travis Bickle’s own journal in Taxi Driver. Where Bickle’s writing is supposed to hint at the shallow and largely uninformed worldview the character had, the Tumblresque ramblings that inhabit Fleck’s diary seem to showcase the idea that Fleck is some sort of a misunderstood genius. The whole idea of force-feeding to the viewer what are supposed to be subtle concepts interlaced in the film gets exhausting by the end of the first act and even things such as the cinematography (especially with how annoyingly overused the Dutch angle was), all add to this. As a result, and unlike its spiritual predecessors, most of the shocking moments of the film do not occur at well-placed twists in the plot, but rather during unpredictable (but actually fairly predictable) scenes of sudden violence (see also: cheap jump-scares).
However, it would be unfair to not give credit to how entertaining this film can get. Despite how it tends to use ‘dark and edgy’ as nothing more than a surface-level aesthetic, I cannot deny that the experience of watching it is, in the very least, fun. Seeing Fleck prance around, causing havoc and spreading terror (on a comparatively smaller scale for the most part), was oddly cathartic, and Phoenix’s portrayal of him – though slightly over-acted at times – was one of the most unique I have ever seen; not a small feat for a character that has been around for decades now. Besides Phoenix though, Zazie Beetz (Sophie Dumond), Robert de Niro (Murray Franklin), and Frances Conroy (Penny Fleck) all present appreciable performances that result in each character feeling fleshed out and distinctive, even if these traits sometimes do not always lead to much in terms of story-line. Moreover, certain individual scenes (that I will refrain from mentioning to avoid spoilers), especially in the third act, felt increasingly well-structured and rewarding, to the point where the climax of the film feels almost memorable enough to excuse the flaws sticking out in the first two acts.
Even though Todd Phillip’s Joker takes itself way too seriously for a film that fails to properly develop its morbid social commentary and central character, it does not mean that it holds back on being an enjoyable watch. At its worst, Joker tries laughably hard to come across as sinister with its dumb-ed down “underlying” themes, but at its best, it manages to pull through on that promise with intense performances and riveting storytelling.
Musa Ali Chaudhry