By CORY WOODROOF
Every generation gets the Fight Club it deserves.
Joker, the latest vision of the iconic Batman villain, is ours. That might not be such a good thing.
The impact of movies is and will always be more than simply their quality, which is why you can’t feel for the aforementioned 1999 David Fincher cult hit only how you feel about the movie when you sit down to watch it. You must consider everything that surrounds the film in question, the conversations around us after we leave the theater.
So, no, you’re not going to be able to watch a revisionist film about the Joker made by longtime bro-comedy director Todd Phillips without feeling the impact of the commentary, approach and social ramifications surrounding the film.
It’s basically Fight Club, but worse.
In and of itself, Joker is mostly a darn good movie played with a loose, anarchistic social commentary. The centerpiece of that commentary is a character that may not be intended as — but can totally be interpreted as — a twisted Pied Piper for the lost and listless.
Joker’s titular eventual crown prince of crime is Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a failed stand-up comic — an isolated, bullied loner with a fragile mind, untreated mental illness, delusions of grandeur and bones to pick. Fleck’s descent into madness and self-discovery as a villain is at once gripping cinema and bothersome characterization. We didn’t need another Tyler Durden, but we might have just gotten one.
Phillips takes a somewhat cunning approach to the material, essentially recreating pre-Batman Gotham as the New York City of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, spicing it up with the media imagery and commentary found in Sidney Lumet’s Network.
Those films certainly inspired their share of controversy and remain lightning rods of ideological discussion — the kinds of films used as twisted statements of purpose in the wrong hands. To their immense credit, though, Scorsese and Lumet’s films do function as cautionary tales. In all the worst ways, Joker can lack a sense of perspective in key moments.
Joker’s Fleck is a noxious pastiche of Travis Bickle, Rupert Pupkin and Howard Beale, played nearly as well as any of those but with only half the nuance in the writing.
Phillips’ film plays like blunt-force trauma, the Dark Knight pencil trick tenfold — it works as pitch-black satire, but the subtlety of what Scorsese and Lumet did so well is nowhere to be found. To borrow a phrase from Christopher Nolan’s evil clown, Joker is like a dog chasing cars, with no idea what to do once it catches them. In some moments, the film is downright terrific; in others, it’s downright terrifying.
Despite moments that feel like they’re sincerely trying to warn us to about a world that creates Arthur Flecks, Joker often feels unchecked and unkempt in its unforgiving soapboxing and nihilistic, ugly tendencies.
Joker is a good movie, maybe even a great one in some regards. But the problems in its approach run deep, and for the first time in a long time, we might need to really have a serious conversation about how this film might enter our society and what people could take away from it.