You know these naive, gullible and moneyed people who see the success of Arjun Reddy
and think they've figured out the mantra of success: young people kissing and cussing. So you then see a spate of disturbingly bad films with teeny boppers doing questionable things with each other.
Likewise, you know these naive, gullible, more moneyed people who see the success of Bahubali
and think they've figured out the mantra of success: big budgets, large scale stunts, and pan-Indian releases. So you then see a spate of wholly forgettable films with topline stars fighting and dancing on top of burnt money.
Similarly, the naive, gullible, and severely moneyed people sitting in DC saw the success of Nolan's Batman Trilogy and thought they had figured out the mantra of success: dark canvases and brooding protagonists. So we have come to suffer the insufferable Batman v Superman
, Suicide Squad
, and, now, Joker.
The reason these naive, gullible people have it all wrong is because the mantras don't work unless in the hands of magicians called writers and directors. You need a filmmaker to make a film, don't you? You can't chant a mantra and burn money at an altar and expect good films to rain from the skies.
So it doesn't make sense to hire Todd Phillips to make a dark brooding film on the most complex character in the DC universe. Todd Phillips is the man who wrote and directed the Hangover
trilogy. If you find yourself struggling to find dark in those films, that's because they are madcap comedies aimed at the juvenile at heart. And Todd Phillips also has an Academy Award nomination for co-writing Borat: Cultural Learnings Of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation Of Kazakhstan. Top credentials for brooding films, these.
Then this man, with expert guidance from the other blokes at DC, draws up a point-A-to-point-B straight line journey of what is supposed to be the mind of a twisted and chaotic genius. They make Arthur Fleck, the Joker-to-Be, a guy with mental illness, low confidence, poverty, and a troubled mother. Voila! Watch as the Joker just manifests out of standard movie issues! We aren't kidding. That is really the film.
Poor Arthur Fleck wants to be a stand-up comedian. Except he isn't funny. And he has a mental illness problem where he laughs uncontrollably in situations of anxiety. So everyone thinks he is a freak. He gets bullied and beaten up. He is booed at his performances. He loves his ill momma who is always waiting for her former employer Thomas Wayne (yes, Bruce's dad) to save them from misery. The help never comes. Rubbing salt in these wounds, the rich of Gotham (Thomas Wayne representing them) are making life much worse for the poor by cutting down social services. It's a rotten life until the point Arthur decides he's had enough of trying to be happy and nice. When he starts embodying the anarchy, he becomes infamous and a symbol of resistance.
There are at least three problems with this boilerplate writing.
Issue #1: Everybody in Gotham knows who the Joker is.
At least by the end of the film, everybody does. This is a serious problem if you try to fit him into any of the other stories of the universe then. Nobody need call him the Joker. They could just call him Arthur Fleck. Batman can know everything about him from his psychiatric records at Arkham. Every little thing, including his triggers and weaknesses. This defeats so much of the usual characterisation of the Joker who pulls his unpredictability out of his sleeves, his hat, and his whatnot.
But what this origins film needed was an anonymity similar to that of Batman
. We, the audience, can be made privy to his identity and origins, but the public of Gotham ought not to know.
Issue #2: Where are the superpowers?
The Joker is a supervillain. He ought to be super at something. Even if Arthur Fleck is a mere human, the Joker ought to have evident special powers. Just as even while Bruce Wayne is a mere human, the Batman is an almost supernatural phantom. Where is this other-worldliness in Phoenix's Joker? He is shown as an ordinary, emaciated bloke with mental illness and, eventually, ruthlessness. This transformation into the ruthless doesn't focus on myth-building. In that case, there are any number of equally messed up people across the planet who can just be the Joker. Why Arthur Fleck?
The only solution to this issue was to make Arthur Fleck a remarkably capable person who later winds down the chaos path. Of course, the makers couldn't see or hear this simple necessity in all the smoke of the burning money and the loud chants of the success mantras.
Issue #3: There. Is. Absolutely. No. Tension. None at all.
At no point in the movie does the writing build any stakes. Things keep happening and you don't build expectations. Since there is no build-up, there is no payoff either. You are expected to watch with a passivity that is the very anti-thesis of the cinematic storytelling.
The third issue is a particularly troublesome one. The Joker's origin is expected to be breeding ground for disturbing drama. We expect our head to hurt and heart to burn by the dilemma of choosing between good and evil. But no, there is no such dilemma. There is, in fact, no character that represents the good. TV show host Murray Franklin (a wasted De Niro) and Thomas Wayne are representative of the decadent rich while the rest of the characters are all affected in multiple ways by the decadence of the rich. What dilemma is there in 'Rich is bad, Poor is upset'?
This film desperately needed a character that represented the good even in the direst of situations. Someone like Inspector Gordon who struggles to make the right decision despite great risks. This character needed to show a path to Arthur Fleck which is the good alternative to the chaotic descent that Fleck is prone to. Without that, there are no choices to be made. Only evil that's delayed till the last act.
So you have this tensionless tepid script made good by the technical talent. The music is appropriately ominous. The bright colours in the dark canvas are aesthetically melancholic. The editor knows how to make a film flow. And the acting is bloody flawless.
Casting Joaquin Phoenix is the best thing that happened to this film (although it may not have been the best thing for Phoenix himself). He gives it a phenomenal physicality, and each movement of his comes from internalised reflexes. He doesn't seem to be acting at all. And when it comes to the emotionality, this is an actor who is capable of blowing himself into smithereens. If you don't watch yourself carefully, you might get torn in one of those explosions. And that magic comes from no mantras. It's entirely due to the magician.