If there’s one aspect of Joker which deserves genuinely high praise, it would be the marketing. The initial wave of glowing reviews that came gushing from the Venice Film Festival sparked excited discussion of the controversial picture, to such an extent that when negative takes started appearing they only heightened the curiosity of fans.
Everyone wanted to see this film to know which side of the debate they would fall. The result: a runaway box office hit and perhaps the most vitriolic disparity of opinion since 2016’s Ghostbusters reboot. It was a dastardly scheme that the Clown Prince of Crime would be proud of.
After weeks of hyperbole on both sides, the truth (as is often the case) can be found somewhere in-between. Joker is not the best movie of the year, nor even the best comic book movie, and the idea that it could receive Oscar nominations is quite frankly laughable (no pun intended).
At its core, Joker is a very simple story about Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a mentally ill man who disconnects with a society that has abandoned him. Along the way, there are a couple of interesting plot developments and new takes on the iconic Batman mythos, but the film falls short of compelling largely due to its central character.
The fact that the Joker is so instantly familiar to most people actually works against the film. The character is associated with so many atrocities, both from previous cinematic outings and famous comic book stories, that any attempt to make him sympathetic feels like a forced and cynical move on behalf of the filmmakers.
This isn’t helped by Phoenix himself who has a handful of strong scenes, mainly during the film’s more grounded moments, but totally crumbles during the embarrassing (and implausible) finale that unfolds on Robert DeNiro’s late night talk show.
Indeed, Joker isn’t entirely without merit but the film is so inconsistent that every compliment paid to it must be accompanied with a qualifying statement: The style adopted by director Todd Phillips may not be entirely original but it’s executed competently and feels more like homage than outright thievery; The score is certainly overbearing at times, but has sporadic moments of dramatic triumph — and so on.
With Joker, the internet has once again elevated a remarkably average film to a position of profound debate. This is not a harrowing exploration of mental illness in modern society, nor is it a powerful manifesto against the ruling one percent.
It’s a film about a clown who kills people, and not even the best one.