After its big surprise win in Venice, a big splash (and some backlash) in Toronto, a storm (in a teacup) of opinion on social media, self-generating fear of cinema violence and even incel insurrection, Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix and directed by The Hangover’s Todd Phillips, arrives on our screens to a resounding, “hm.” It’s a fine enough film, extremely well crafted, but, in direct opposition to its buzz, there is no discernible need to see it. Indeed, if you’ve seen Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy both, there is truly nothing for you, as Joker, aping those films and setting itself in 1980 squat between them, doesn’t even update their concerns for our own troubled age.
Cinematography, art direction and Phoenix’s performance are the draws here; the story is so derivative, drawn out, empty and vapid that the film’s biggest fault is that it drags. Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy had wit and style; Joker has no wit and all its style is stolen. Its tale of a poor down-trodden wannabe urban comedian who descends into violence has been often told, with minor variations, and resonance to real-life events, most specifically to “subway vigilante” Bernhard Goetz, does not come with any insight. Ugliness is on display here purely for its own sake.
The best takeaway from this film is as a set-up for an upcoming Batman (like we need another). The final scenes are suitably baroque, befitting the Joker’s origin story as operatically linked to Bruce Wayne’s; try as Phillips, his marketing team, and everyone else at Warner Bros. may have to deny it, this is just another comic book movie, in a darker than usual key.