Joker has taken the top prize at the Venice Film Festival and acquired a critical prestige with awards mooted for its lead actor and accolades for the director. It has been praised for this, criticised for that, and speculation has been attributed to how it may lead to shootings, or even create a figurehead around which ‘incels’ (involuntary celibate males) can rally.

The hype has been relentless. It has been spun in a curious fashion, focusing on Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, touted to be as electrifying as the late Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the same DC comic book supervillain. The film has transcended light entertainment to become an event. But does Joker live up to all the flimflam? Is it worthy of all the buzz that it has commanded?

What interested us was just how all this purported “nihilism” that created ‘trigger warnings’ for sensitive viewers panned out. Being cynics, we were suspicious that may have been code for ‘clumsily dark’, or ‘fashionably violent’.

In fact, it was all those things, but the word we choose to describe the ‘experience’ of Joker is underwhelming.

Now, we aim to be fair, here. We understand that a film which might initially be panned can achieve a vogue of its own over time.

Once it has been freed from profile-raising, and its commercial immediacy is no longer a decisive factor, a film may attain a ‘cult status’, or simply be understood better without all the attendant pressure. And we mean the pressure on the audience to “get it”, like it, or surrender to the prevailing consensus, no matter how artificial that might be.

Given these provisos, we must be careful not to commit too readily to a negative review, no matter how niggling the temptation. But our verdict isn’t great.

The first half of Joker is, to be frank, dull. It is under the same constipated strain that the beginning of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins was to acclimatise us to a character who in this cynical age of realism requires a total suspension of belief to accept.

Thus, we meet Arthur Fleck, who is a failure, living in Gotham City, which has been modelled on the decayed Big Apple of the early 1980s when the city was broke and lawless.

Arthur cares for his invalid mother in a hovel apartment of a rundown apartment block which would dissolve if it ever found sunlight rays splashing its depressing façade. The colour schemes are shit-brown and the interior shots (and every other) rely heavily on attached shadows. It looks crap, and that, frankly, has a run-on effect. What seems like a bright idea in the context of the theme isn’t always the greatest directorial decision. Nevertheless.

Arthur earns a crust performing gigs as a clown-for-hire, which is immediately a dumb plot device. It doesn’t gel that there is an agency out there with nicotine-stained walls and a hangdog manager booking wretched losers as clowns for a city as fucked-up as Gotham.

It shouldn’t surprise us that a teenage gang beats the crap out of Arthur for goofing about in the street since anybody as incongruous as he has it coming on general principle. Clowns are so anachronistic that their entertainment value is no longer with their target audience of toddlers, but with teenagers and adults fixated with horror themes.

Anyway, the world had its most terrifying clown based in real life in John Wayne Gacy.

Yet, this is how they decided the Joker should have his genesis. Nothing terribly imaginative about that association.

The first half of the film plays out as an overcooked melodrama, as Fleck is beaten down, rejected, and ignored by an unfeeling metropolis.

Fleck is an irritating cunt anyway, afflicted with a form of Tourette’s syndrome that makes him laugh apropos of nothing, in a manner that seems as tacked onto the character as everything else in the film appears stapled to the plot. He is seeing a counsellor because he has more issues than National Geographic. His counsellor is a black woman. His neighbour is a black woman. For the first hour, it seems as if Fleck’s world is populated entirely by blacks.

This gave us the thought that the Joker, given it is nearly 2020, should best be portrayed by a black woman, just like James Bond.

But Joker is played by Jewish actor Joaquin Phoenix. We won’t hold that against him since 99.9% of Hollyweird is also Jewish.

However, the message of diversity that has come from the conspicuousness of so much blackness around Arthur Fleck isn’t reflected in the Jews. They seem to be excused from exclusion from diversity quotas, which apply, it would seem, only to white characters.

In all seriousness, Phoenix is probably the ‘it’ actor of right now. He has earned it over the years. We do not at all criticise his performance, we save all reproaches for the script and director. As it happens, the director is Todd Phillips, who was responsible for The Hangover atrocity.

Much has been made about his apparent influences, in Scorsese, with obvious allusions to Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.

These extractions are reflected partly in Arthur Fleck’s addiction to talk show funny guy Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) — an echo of the character played by Jerry Lewis in The King of Comedy — and the insertion of tropes from Taxi Driver.

However, the big difference is that Todd Phillips is no Martin Scorsese. Not now, not tomorrow, not ever. If he thinks his Gotham invokes the kind of sordid urban landscape that drove Taxi Driver’s protagonist Travis Bickel over the edge, he is dreaming.

Scorsese has an intimate vision of New York that he communicated in Taxi Driver by a sleaze that exhaled from the strip clubs, the street-dwelling freaks, and the steam rising from the potholes of the roadways. It was a city broken down from something bigger than just a deficit in human morality.

Bickel’s New York was a claustrophobic ether with the narrator’s psychology tipped off-kilter more from ennui than despair. His paranoia was understandable, but it wasn’t a communicable disease among all the other of the city’s inhabitants which he came into contact with.

To that end, Scorsese illustrates his personal vision of the city through the disturbed perceptions of his character, rather than imposing it on him as incontestable reality.

By comparison, Phillip’s Gotham is just scenery copied with a ham-fisted mind to a didactic device of ensuring that the viewer is left in no doubt that the environment has pushed Fleck into madness.

We never really knew what drove Travis Bickel psychotic because we had so much to choose from: it’s just that the environs of New York City of the day didn’t help his already fragile state of mind. The idea that these characters must have been damaged is in itself lacking in insight, especially where evil such as Joker is concerned.

The creators will not have us think that he can simply ‘be’, but must’ve have been produced; a very liberal mindset.

Taxi Driver never masqueraded as social commentary, which is a cop-out, but here Phillips makes the pedestrian mistake of attempting to attribute Joker’s formative years to the penuries inflicted by a division of wealth and living standards. Consequently, Thomas Wayne is transformed from a philanthropist into an oligarch to make Joker fit this mould.

The mistakes around the character of the future Batman’s father are manifold and expose not just the willingness of the creators to take great liberties with the backstory, but those of the transition points.

How is it that Joker’s mother [spoiler alert] can be connected to Wayne? Seems cheap. But even lower rent is how Joker can just sidle up to millionaire Thomas Wayne in the men’s lavatory of a theatre as though the mega-rich are so easily accessible.

For a film that tries to appease the suspension of disbelief, it runs headlong into some fairly unbelievable terrain.

Joker’s transition into a homicidal maniac, while it lacks the finesse of a supervillain’s metamorphosis, is the best part of the film. It’s followed by the next best scene of the film, where Joker frolics down a stairwell, completely transformed into a psychotic villain.

But the rest is a disappointment, and the film never achieves a climax. The interplay when Joker finally meets his former idol Murray Franklin is just bland and obvious dialogue. It errs in an embarrassment of morality. In their eagerness to make Joker a psychotic they simply assume he is incapable of wit.

The idea of a mass movement triggered by earlier killings he committed, whereupon disaffected Gotham citizens begin wearing clown masks, is lazy plot contrivance.  

The major problem Joker faces is that there are no innocents in Gotham. If there is no goodness for Batman to defend, there is no innocence for Joker to corrupt. He has already won before he has started.

The biggest blunder of the flick is that we’re talking about a supervillain here, and this is something constantly forgotten by the director. The ‘super’ part of the narrative is totally absent from his imagining.

To understand the Joker is to forgive him, which is unforgivable. Joker should be a demon, an unstoppable force, a chaotic imp. His allure lies in not knowing, because knowing reveals the magician’s secret.

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