On Todd Phillips’s “Joker” (2019): Laughable, Yet Humorless

A scene from Todd Phillips's "Joker" (2019)

You would think that a film about a psychotic clown, who is (eventually) chased by a man dressed as a bat, would be a hilarious one. But Todd Phillips’s 2019 film Joker insists on being a “serious” character study. The film provides a possible origin to the comic book villain and tries to do so in the style of character sketches such as Martin Scorsese’s The King Of Comedy and Taxi Driver. It constantly references these works, and by doing so not only does it remind the sharp viewer of its inferiority, but also manages to misuse those films’ devices in the most ridiculous ways. Its advocates might argue that it is not really about a murderous clown, as much as about a man driven to insanity, so I will try treating it as such while comparing it to its predecessors.

The first scene shows our lead, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), as he puts his clown makeup on, before forcing a smile on himself and bathetically crying a single tear. Next, we see him juggle an ad on a sidewalk before a group of teens steals it. He follows them to an alley where they beat him, and the title of the film pops up. From the start, we are confronted by one of the film’s major problems: melodrama. Indeed, you would think that a film taking inspiration from Scorsese’s work would understand the power of understatement and humor. After all, The King Of Comedy is one of the best black comedies of all time. Instead, the film opens with a scene that is not just melodramatic but features a naked cliché and proceeds to establish Arthur as a victim.

Compare this with Taxi Driver’s opening. Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), who will likewise experience a deteriorating mental state, introduces himself to his future boss as well as the audience. We discover he wants to work “long hours” because of his insomnia, and that he was a Marine in the Vietnam War and likely suffering PTSD. We get a glimpse of his insecurities: when asked about his education he answers, “Here, there, you know…” and awkwardly stares. There is an unmistakable authenticity to the environment and the cast within it: just look at the dispatcher in the background, or the way Travis’s interviewer remains defensive until he learns Travis is a veteran like him. There is a clear difference between the purpose of this sequence versus that of Joker. In short, while Todd Phillips wants the viewer to feel sorry for Arthur, Martin Scorsese wants the viewer to get to know Travis and his world.

In Joker’s next scene, we see Arthur attend therapy. We discover he suffers from pathological laughter or pseudobulbar affect. This is the film’s attempt to frame the maniacal laughter trope within a clinical context. The scene continues the barrage of overly dramatic scenes started with the opening and further proves that Phoenix has no creativity as an actor, nor subtlety. There is nothing unique or unexpected about his performance. Phoenix smiles at inside jokes, wields a soft-spoken manner, and laughs out loud before suddenly stopping, straining to exhibit the character’s freakishness. Not only is his portrayal of Fleck a very straightforward depiction of a madman, but when seen in relation to the man’s career, it becomes clear how little range he has, as this is, essentially, the same role he played in  Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master.

Contrast, again, with Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle, a role that is both transparent and magnetic: transparent because his acting does not attract attention to itself the way Phoenix’s does, and magnetic because it pulls the viewer into the narrative with its realism and complexity. Travis is always checking out his surroundings, maybe due to his paranoia or his insecurities, or both. There is a stiffness to how he walks. He is spaced out for most of the film, probably due to his insomnia, and wears a veneer of smugness. Each one of these layers is unstrained and adds depth to the character.

The first obvious reference to Scorsese’s The King Of Comedy occurs when Arthur helps his weak mother (Frances Conroy) to bed as they lie down to watch a talk show. Not only is the show’s host played by De Niro, in an inversion of his 1982 role, but we also watch a direct rip-off of that film’s unique daydream sequences. Arthur imagines himself in the audience, and is even praised by the host for taking care of his mother. Yet The King Of Comedy focuses on wider themes like celebrity worship and American media culture, while Rupert Pupkin’s daydreams outline his own mental landscape. As the story progresses, these become increasingly indistinguishable from reality, so much so that by the end of the film the viewer has reason to think what is shown is simply another fantasy. On the other hand, Todd Phillips’s use of this device is painfully generic. Aside from depicting Arthur’s desires in a perfunctory manner, the only other purpose these scenes have is to show off the filmmaker’s knowledge of a well-known classic.

Arthur receives a gun from his co-worker (Glenn Fleshler) for self-defense, then meets his new neighbor, a single mother named Sophie (Zaazie Beetz). He seems taken by her, then proceeds to stalk her. This leads to one of the most bizarre exchanges in the film, as Sophie knocks on his apartment door and confronts him about being followed. He admits to following her, but her reaction is not, as one would expect, one of shock or anger, but instead seems amused by this, even accepting an invitation to Arthur’s stand-up show. Then, while doing a clown routine at a children’s hospital, Arthur’s gun falls out of his pocket and he kicks it around the room, which ends in his firing. On the subway home, Arthur is beaten by three drunk Wayne Enterprises businessmen, shooting all three dead. Arthur then runs into a public restroom and starts dancing as violins drone in the background. This is the first of many pretentious dance sequences in the film. Returning to his apartment complex, he knocks on Sophie’s door and she reciprocates his kisses. I guess this would be a good time to explain to the reader how I am not making any of this up. These are the scenes of the film in the correct order.

A subway scene from Todd Phillips's "Joker" (2019)

One of the biggest problems with this film is that Todd Phillips wants the viewer to empathize with a comic book villain without offering anything deeper than cartoon-level characterization. We see Arthur beaten up, we see him beating up other people, but we never see the moments in-between which add so much authenticity to a character. Even though Taxi Driver is mainly a drama, we still get light moments such as when Travis interacts with Iris, as well as other characters. By contrast, Joker wants to be a mature drama but still adheres to cheap sensationalism.

Sophie attends Arthur’s stand-up routine, which ends in disaster, the conclusion to which the audience does not see. At home, Arthur finds a letter written by his mother to billionaire mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), claiming Arthur is Thomas’s illegitimate son, forcing him to try and confront Thomas at Wayne Manor. He meets Thomas’s young son, Bruce Wayne (as the film feels the need to remind us it is part of Batman’s universe), before getting into an altercation with the butler. Penny is soon hospitalized with a stroke, Arthur appears under investigation for the murders, and, after watching a new episode of the Murray Franklin (De Niro) talk show, is humiliated to find his comedy routine made fun of by his own idol. He later confronts Thomas in this distraught state, who rebuffs the idea that he is Arthur’s father, and Arthur is soon back in his apartment, emptying the refrigerator before entering it and closing the door.

Now, I will not attempt to explain this contrived attempt to outline Arthur’s mental decline, but I will compare it with Taxi Driver. If you have seen that film, you might remember the scene where Travis messes up his date by bringing Betsy to a porno theatre. She obviously gets upset and leaves Travis. The reason this scene works is because it achieves a lot more than just showing Travis is crazy. It gives the audience a glimpse of “how” Travis is crazy. He is so submerged in NYC’s underworld he cannot tell how taking your date to an adult theatre is not a normal thing. It is unstrained and shows Travis’s long-developing alienation. Joker’s scene, by contrast, is a cipher for anyone interested in character motivation. Nor is Arthur’s character deepened when he visits Arkham State Hospital to Penny’s file, which reveals that he was in fact adopted, enraging him to the point that he murders Penny, as well.

In perhaps one of Todd Phillips’s retroactively worst scenes, Arthur barges into Sophie’s apartment and just sits there, mumbling to himself. Sophie discovers him, and her words reveal that they had no relationship whatsoever and had barely even spoken. Indeed, this is the reason why their earlier exchange was written so unrealistically. The implausibility of the dialogue in that scene tried to foreshadow this revelation. But it did not really foreshadow the twist; it just gave it away. After all, who would believe that a sane woman would be amused after discovering she has been stalked by someone like Arthur? Yet if the horrible twist was not enough, the scene plays out in the cheesy style of Fight Club, with a set of flashbacks showing our lead in all the instances where he has been with Sophie, and then showing him in those instances by himself.

Earlier I wrote about The King Of Comedy, its great use of daydream sequences, and its ambiguous ending. That film ends as Rupert takes the stage for a television special with a live audience, where an announcer enthusiastically introduces him as the King of Comedy while Rupert himself prepares to address his audience. The announcer repeats: “Ladies and gentlemen, Rupert Pupkin”, or some variation of this, seven times. It is never clearly stated whether Rupert’s success is a figment of his imagination, like the daydreams we have seen. This is only hinted at because of the pattern the film has established, and the obsessive way the presenter repeats Pupkin’s name. Not only is this a unique way of dealing with an unreliable narrator, but it engages the audience on a deeper level so that the twist happens in the mind of the viewer, and is far more powerful than Joker’s derivative revelation.

Eventually, Arthur is invited to appear on Murray’s show due to his now-infamous standup routine. After some initial awkwardness, Arthur (who shows up in full clown makeup as the Joker) confesses to the murders and champions the city’s poor, albeit in words only. Murray clearly wishes to end the show and Arthur shoots him in the head as the audience runs out. Outside, rioters cause mayhem in support of Arthur’s “message”, ultimately freeing him from police custody before murdering Thomas Wayne and his wife. More pretentious dancing before a shot of Arthur at Arkham State Hospital, speaking to yet another psychiatrist before seemingly escaping.

In many instances, Todd Phillips’s Joker strains to shock the audience, but only in the most unsophisticated ways, such as when Arthur buries himself in the fridge, or when, watching a stand-up comedy show, he laughs at the sentences in-between the jokes instead of laughing at the jokes themselves. Compare, again, with The King Of Comedy, and those scenes where Rupert Pupkin, who is otherwise a very funny character, re-enacts his daydreams in his basement. He does so among cardboard cutouts of celebrities, while his mother, who is never actually seen onscreen, interrupts him. This is a clear reference to Hitchcock’s classic, Psycho, and one immediately notices the difference between this allusion and Todd Phillips’s references, which are really just ornaments. If you have seen Psycho, every time you hear Pupkin’s mother call him, you cannot help but think about the more sinister aspects of Hitchcock’s film, and because of this, Scorsese’s scene gains a whole new layer of disturbing.

In other instances, Joker strains to make the audience empathize with Arthur, but these moments come off as preachy. Take the opening of the film, for example, or any other attempt to victimize Arthur while too-obvious music plays in the background. In Taxi Driver, however, Betsy avoids Travis, who tries calling her for the second or third time. As he speaks over the phone, he asks her about the flowers he has sent her and the virus she supposedly had, before the camera moves from him to the hallway. This shift of the camera feels as though the filmmaker himself was trying to avoid second-hand embarrassment or as though he was feeling sorry for Travis. It is a simple gesture, but it makes for a scene more powerful than anything in Joker because it is unstrained yet unexpected.

Todd Phillips’s Joker is all style and no substance, but it barely has any style. It borrows from better films, without understanding what made those films work in the first place. It thinks showing the difficulty of being poor and mentally ill is a great political statement and should take precedence over craft. I would say it is the poseur’s poseur film, but, as I explained, it does not even know how to pose.

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If you enjoyed this piece, check out the automachination YouTube channel and the ArtiFact Podcast. Recent episodes include an interview with singer Eva Schubert on writing good songs, an in-depth look at Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnets from the Portuguese” with poet Joel Parrish, a philosophical look at kitsch, aesthetics, and NFTs with UK painter Ethan Pinch, and a long discussion on Edward P. Jones’s classic short story collection, “Lost in the City”.

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