‘Joker’ is dreary fan-fiction, but you could see worse horror movies this October

Joaquin Phoenix in ‘Joker,’ directed by Todd Phillips. — film still

I fell down a Wikipedia rabbit hole a few months back and stumbled upon the page for the “‘My Way’ killings.” Apparently, in the ’00s, at least a half-dozen karaoke singers were killed while performing Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” at bars in the Philippines. Fighting is not uncommon at these bars, but for whatever reason, “My Way” seemed to be an especially potent magnet for it. Were audiences just particular about how the beloved song is sung, and willing to violently punish those who botched it?, a New York Times reporter mused. Or is there something sinister about the song itself — a song about a man unapologetically reflecting on a life of “doing what [he] had to do,” taking blows and spitting out regrets? In any case, “My Way” became something of a taboo in Filipino culture.

It is not one of the two Frank Sinatra songs featured in Todd Phillips’ Joker — perhaps because the song has a conclusive note to it, while Joker is a beginning, a non-canonical origin story for Batman’s archenemy. But “My Way” would have been a fitting addition to the Joker soundtrack, if only because both the song and the film share a reputation for inadvertently stoking machismo rage. (I should be clear — Joker has not been tied to any violent incidents, though warnings of potential danger, including from the families of the 2012 Aurora shooting victims, and some threats of violence surround the film.)

Joker, at least as social commentary, is just not interesting enough to discuss in-depth. But it still leaves us with plenty to enjoy and shudder at (in a good way, mostly).

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in ‘Joker’ (2019) — film still

Written by Todd Phillips and Scott Silver, and enjoying a run at FilmScene, Joker tells the story of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a lower-class man living with his ailing mother (Frances Conroy) in the crime-ridden Gotham City in the what appears to be the early ’80s. Fleck suffers from a range of mental health issues — including a condition that causes him to involuntarily laugh at inappropriate times — and a dearth of resources with which to manage them; Gotham’s powerful have been cutting social services left and right. Frequently derided and even beaten for being a “freak,” Fleck feels isolated and unheard — until a violent incident empowers him to fight back and embrace his inner demons.

What’s going right? Undoubtedly, Phoenix, who is brilliant, notably in his physical performance. I don’t mean his dramatic weight loss, but the way he runs, hunches, twists and dances in this skeletal, cackling form. He is this movie, as far as I’m concerned. Rami Malek didn’t save Bohemian Rhapsody for me, but Phoenix made Joker recommendable, fascinating cinema.

I also appreciate the film’s lack of eye-fatiguing CGI, refreshing for the superhero genre — even the more “gritty” subgenre of superhero flicks.

Fleck is an intriguing anti-hero, though I’d argue he’s an incomplete Joker. I’m not a big comic book scholar myself, but was disappointed to find Phoenix’s Joker was short a sense of humor. The character has been both cartoonish and chilling, but never witless. Didn’t people practically riot when X-Men Origins: Wolverine included a mute Deadpool? The Merc with a Mouth needs a mouth, and the Clown Prince of Crime needs some silly puns about crime, or to at least make a pencil disappear. Why so serious?

That’s not to say Fleck doesn’t try to be funny. Though he enjoys working as a clown-for-hire, and is rather good at it, he aspires to be a beloved stand-up comedian, the kind that graces the sound-stage of his favorite late-night talk show. Fleck seems to have a good grasp of his differences (“The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t,” he writes in his journal) and is not delusional, except, seemingly, where his stand-up ability is concerned. This is where Phillips’ story borrows heavily from the film King of Comedy, as plenty of critics have pointed out: Fleck cannot properly connect with the larger public, doesn’t grasp the structure of a joke and lacks charisma. His failure is inevitable, and his dreams tragic. He is not special.

(Though it’s tempting to see the comedy plot as some kind of analogue to Todd I-Quit-Comedy-Because-Woke-Culture-Ruined-It Phillips’ career, it’s a loose connection, and it gives me a headache just thinking about psychoanalyzing the jaded director of The Hangover, credited with such acting roles as “Foot Lover,” “Gang Bang Guy” and “Mr. Creepy.”)

The best scenes have nothing to do with Fleck’s career aspirations or societal hang-ups. Neither are they the ones that remind you you’re watching a DC film, though not technically in the DC Extended Universe (there is more fan service at work than I expected to find, particularly in a series of second-act plot twists). What I most enjoyed were the elements of Joker that feel straight out of a psychological horror film. I relished the sense of dread that came with Fleck’s increasingly blasé attitude towards violence — not the cringey, shoddy way Phillips and Silver’s third-act dialogue tries to justify that violence.

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in ‘Joker’ (2019) — film still

At the risk of sounding like a total suck-up, my favorite part of seeing Joker was experiencing it in FilmScene’s new Chauncey theater. The seats are spacious and comfortable, the projection crisp, and every cackle, gunshot and Nat King Cole tune came through loud and clear — all creating an immersive, almost exhilarating experience.

I didn’t walk away from the film with the sense it’s inherently problematic or dangerous; that strikes me as a bit of an exaggeration, like blaming “My Way” for the “My Way” killings, rather than the murderers who apparently used the song as set dressing for their crimes. Joker is just not especially important, or original, or quotable. Its politics are simplistic, and its protagonist, themes and imagery are more straight imitation of, rather than tasteful ode to, better films, including Taxi Driver and The Dark Knight. It’s convincing enough as an origin story for a Heath Ledger-esque Joker, but I don’t know how much that’s worth — I tend to find villains are stronger when they’re more enigmatic, their psychologies harder to dissect.

I wish I could give this film a heartier recommendation, but I am recommending it nonetheless. Phoenix is great (though hardly a revelation — the man’s been killing it for years), it’s always nice to have seen the year’s buzziest movies come awards season and Joker is at least as good as any B-serial-killer thriller you’ll watch this October.

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