Todd Phillips will be fine. He has directed a blockbuster movie, Joker, that is causing a lot of consternation but will also make a lot of money and, more to the point, establish auteur status for a guy previously identified with The Hangover and Old School. Still, Phillips is getting lightly dragged around the public square, having managed to touch off two almost completely unrelated social-media hissy fits at the same time while promoting the same movie.
I don’t want to overstate what’s happening to Phillips, but his detractors are a bit ridiculous, and calling out people who are being a bit ridiculous is part of my job description (along with scolding David French for loving Aquaman). In the High Court of Social-Media Justice, Phillips stands in the dock charged with two crimes. First, he has claimed without cause that cancel culture exists and is detrimental to the comedy business. Second, in Joker he has made an irresponsible movie that is going to warm the hearts of incel lunatics, maybe even nudge them toward violence.
The first charge is easier to dispense with, so I’ll start there. In Esquire, an exceedingly huffy writer named Dave Holmes provided a widely shared take on this comment from Phillips about why he switched to drama from comedy:
Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture. There were articles written about why comedies don’t work anymore — I’ll tell you why, because all the f***ing funny guys are like, “F*** this sh**, because I don’t want to offend you.” It’s hard to argue with 30 million people on Twitter. You just can’t do it, right? So you just go, “I’m out.”
That’s all Phillips said on the matter, in a Vanity Fair profile of his Joker star Joaquin Phoenix. Holmes was deeply triggered. He supplied 1,300 words or so of dudgeon implying that Phillips was a racist homophobe (Phillips “made his fortune on movies where white guys call each other faggots”); described at length why he disagreed with qualms about “cancel culture” (which Phillips didn’t mention); listed a bunch of obscure TV comedy shows he likes as evidence that comedy is thriving (Phillips is a movie director and was referring to movies); brought up Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, and Kevin Spacey (to whom Phillips did not allude); and said Jimmy Carter jokes would bomb today because it’s no longer 1979 (a year that Phillips also does not believe we are living in). One suspects that what set off Holmes is two words: “woke culture.” Phillips denigrates it, but Holmes seems to think it’s wonderful. Maybe woke culture is just good manners?
Phillips was referring to articles such as this one observing that comedy movies are dying at the box office and at the Big Five studios, which hardly bother with them anymore. Yes, the superhero and animated movies contain lots of laughs, and Kevin Hart is doing okay, but Seth Rogen has been demoted to mini-studios such as Lionsgate and there are no comedies in the top 20 at this year’s box office, just as there were none last year. (Crazy Rich Asians was more of a bling-enlivened romance.) I’m not sure Phillips is correct to identify this as a supply problem (“all the f***ing funny guys are like, ‘F*** this sh**”), much less that the supply problem is due to fear of giving offense. It looks like a demand problem to me: The comedy audience isn’t going to the movies. Much of that audience is at home watching Dave Chappelle, so I think they’re okay with material that gives offense. From Phillips’s vantage point, though, his job opportunities to direct big-time movie comedies might be drying up through no fault of his own. Segueing to serious drama seems like a wise move.
Holmes blasts away at Phillips, saying, “Complaints about ‘woke culture’ are coming fast right now, and they’re generally lodged by people who are furious you’re not laughing at their jokes.” See the little trick there? Accuse Todd Phillips of being “furious” and you’re framing him as some kind of crazed comedy reactionary. But does Phillips sound furious? To me he sounds tired of listening to 30 million wokesters trying to top one another in hysterics. In other words, he’s bored with people like . . . Dave Holmes. Holmes’s essay works to prove the core of Phillips’s point, which is that people tend to get huffy about nothing.
A charge more worthy of consideration is that Joker constitutes “irresponsible propaganda” (Vanity Fair) for telling lonely weirdos and psychos that they’re not alone. Thanks to reviews like that, plus our national fake memory that the Dark Knight Rises mass killer in Aurora, Colo., said he was the Joker (he never actually said this), movie theaters have added weapons checks to Joker screenings. In New York City, the police department was this week ordered to patrol all movie theaters showing Joker.
It’s certainly possible that some real-life act of violence could be linked to Joker, and I wouldn’t say filmmakers should give no thought to their work’s potential impact on the audience. But should we blame the makers of The Matrix because the Columbine killers thought it would be cool to dress like Keanu Reeves? Although many movies have glamorized violence, Joker certainly isn’t one of them. The title figure is a desperate, pathetic, impecunious, mentally unbalanced incel mama’s boy, not the Henry V of losers. But I’ll come back to that in another essay.