Wednesday 9 October 2019

Sorry for laughing: "Joker"

Ten years ago, Todd Phillips ascended to the Hollywood A-list upon the runaway success of The Hangover, in which the director's piledriver comic touch reduced a hall-of-fame comedy pitch to fitful mediocrity, hammering every last punchline into the ground for the benefit of those dunderheads who'd found Judd Apatow's human comedies too subtle. You might have felt punchdrunk even before the problematic Mike Tyson showed up for a nudging cameo that demonstrated Phillips had no truck with the so-called PC brigade; hey, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, right? Except it didn't: a sequel headed to Thailand, principally for the purposes of taking cracks at the country's transgender sex workers, before Part III - seemingly cowed by the outrage levelled at its predecessor - settled for bland amiability, and an acknowledgement of just how quickly this joke had exhausted itself. Since then, Phillips has taken a turn for the serious, perhaps inspired by the acclaim lavished on the recent works of longtime Will Ferrell enabler Adam McKay (The Big Short, Vice). McKay went serious to teach us something; that's why his films often come over as didactic. Phillips has gone serious for different reasons: to paraphrase his words in an interview published last week, "woke culture is killing comedy", a sentiment that suggests someone needs to pull his head from his behind and sit him down before, to cite one of many possible examples, TV's It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which has found ever more inspired ways to razz the excesses of both the PC and non-PC brigades. (As ever, if no-one's laughing at your jokes, it may not be the culture. It may just be you.) Following up 2016's already forgotten War Dogs, a foreign-policy goof that set nothing and nobody alight, Todd Phillips Serious Artist now brings us Joker, a Venice Golden Lion-winning origin story for the clown that fought Batman which seeks to monetise white male frustration and rage much as recent Marvel movies have monetised wokeness. There is, after all, a lot of it about. 

If it weren't so obviously and intrinsically cynical, Joker could at least be admired for the way it sets itself up as a lightning rod for all manner of contemporary concerns. The antihero's first line is "Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?"; one of his closing lines, delivered just before he assassinates a public figure on live television, is "Everyone is awful, it's enough to drive you crazy." (He is at least consistent, both in his worldview and his tendency to speak like the whiniest and most self-pitying of manboys.) What falls in between builds a grim tension, in order to enable an even grimmer release. The tension follows from the humiliations visited upon Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a lowly sign twirler in the rat-infested Gotham City of the early 1980s, who lives with his ailing mother (Frances Conroy) and displays an underlying instability Phillips signals via a close-up of the words "mental illness" Fleck writes in his notebook in totally twisted handwriting. The first hour works overtime to establish Fleck as Gotham's most miserable loser, yanking him through menial labour, personal slapdowns, professional rejections and social faux pas; once he takes delivery of a gun and sets his sights on comic-turned-talkshow-host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), we're basically sitting waiting for the wiry, strung out Phoenix to snap. Phillips made his directorial debut with 1993's Hated, a profile of the shit-slinging rocker GG Allin, and followed it with 1998's Frat House, on the fallout from some especially vicious college hazing rituals. Clearly, he has a longstanding fascination with individuals who cross the line separating victim from aggressor; Joker slots into this filmography as not a million miles away from a textbook radicalisation narrative.

How far we've come since Jack Nicholson made this role his own thirty years ago. That Joker was the kind of fun carnival turn cinemagoers once expected to see at the multiplex, a flamboyant spot of pantomiming from a performer operating well beyond the point of caring what anybody thought of his choices. Since then, our Jokers - Heath Ledger, Jared Leto in Suicide Squad, now Phoenix - have got progressively more neurotic and self-involved, too busy smearing greasepaint over their inner demons to do anything so frivolous as crack a funny. (Points to anyone who can guess what this says about us as a society.) Phoenix brings some of his usual skill and full-bodied commitment to the project - contorting his features and his torso into an ambulant Munch scream - but we might wonder to what end his talents have been co-opted here. A dreadful, heavy suspicion persists that the actor has been cast to lend some tortured-artist charisma to a character who is fundamentally a mopey, wormy sadsack, the kind of non-entity who fails to trigger automatic doors. (The thumping slapstick that results comprises the one laugh in the whole two hours of Joker, and perhaps only one that could have been engineered by the director of The Hangover.) What are we supposed to feel for this guy? At no point in my adult life have I felt an urgent need to discover where Batman first sourced his cape, but I can understand why creatives have routinely returned to his origin story, to explore where heroism - or caped crusading, vigilantism, whatever you want to call it - comes from. Affording the same treatment to an entirely fictional villain teaches us what, exactly? That even grinning sociopaths start out as one of us? Well, Todd, you're going to have to define the "us" there.

If there were a single flicker of genuine human emotion in this mechanically exploitative picture, that line of inquiry might have yielded something. Instead, Joker is both benumbed and numbing, a succession of cattle-prod impulses that don't amount to a damn thing. Nothing gets developed beyond the anti-hero's morbidly misanthropic outlook: not his tentative pursuit by the cops (a heinous waste of Bill Camp and Shea Whigham), nor the Kill the Rich movement that springs up in the Joker's wake. (We only know it's called Kill the Rich from a newspaper discarded in the margins of one frame; its recruits go remarkably underdiscussed for a mob attempting to overthrow the established social order.) Instead, the screen fills up with empty gestures: a bizarre ballet Fleck performs in a dishevelled washroom (beneath - of course - a flickering striplight) after his first killing, the happy/sad faces Phoenix pulls at either end of the movie, the dismantling of a fridge that looks like the kind of Methody nonsense an A-list actor can get away with under the eye of a credulous director, but which in and of itself adds precisely zilch to our understanding. Elsewhere, Phillips appears to know exactly what buttons he's pushing, the fire he's playing with: that's why he sets the creepy Arthur to fondling the young Bruce's face through the gates of Wayne Manor, and subsequently sets the first public appearance of the ghoulish Joker to the strains of a Gary Glitter track. Like any wannabe edgelord, there's no fear or insecurity he won't prey on, whosoever profits, whatever the taste it might leave behind. The movie's opening weekend take indicates Phillips has been successful indeed in courting that growing demographic of depressives and malcontents who've found the superheroic promises the movies have been making since 9/11 count for diddly squat in the real world. Yet this viewer is old enough to remember the days when Hollywood escapism sought to carry us outside ourselves, and didn't just jab artlessly and haphazardly at an audience's weak spots.

Joker is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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