Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in Joker might have been impressive had he not devoted his career to playing so many weirdos. In Joker, produced by Bradley Cooper and directed by Todd Phillips (Cooper’s enabler on the snarky, gross-out Hangover flicks), yet another DC Comics origin story, the clown-face villain, is used as an acting showcase.
It is an overly self-conscious remake, like Cooper’s A Star Is Born, and is similarly self-serious and humorless. Phoenix and friends, still working from the malign charisma of Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, evoke Christopher Nolan’s nihilism for maudlin irony.
Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) works at Ha-Ha’s, an agency employing destitute men as party clowns. He’s introduced crying as he applies Pagliacci makeup in a mirror. But that isn’t ironic enough; he really wants to be a stand-up comic. More irony: He suffers from pseudobulbar affect, the condition causing sudden, inappropriate laughter.
This handy diagnosis actually conveys the larger cultural problem of Nolan’s DC Comics reboot. Generations raised on Nolan’s “smartness” have lost the proper affect about issues of alienation, violence, and morality. Nolan’s premise that everything is dark and ironic leads him to embrace dystopia, the symbolic hellhole that is Gotham City. Phillips gives us Blade Runner without beauty — a pseudo-artistic response that inappropriately normalizes Millennial dysfunction.
Fleck’s disaffection is a given, and Phoenix takes it as far as he can. Having done this sociopathic-reprobate act so many times (most recently in Lynne Ramsay’s anomic Taxi Driver rip-off You Were Never Really Here), he’s made it his stock-in-trade. Phoenix’s effeminate, degenerate, mental defective is sometimes deranged-handsome like Daniel Day Lewis or Morrissey morphing into Andy Kaufman. Worst irony of all: Fleck is a mime. After a street mugging, even his lapel boutonnière bleeds. He gets a gun and becomes a homicidal mime, a berserk vigilante — performing ballet in a dilapidated subway men’s room — who triggers anxiety in the populace.
Phoenix’s precisely measured dementia exploits the cultural condition that comic-book movie culture has already degenerated, especially now that Zack Snyder’s DC Comics vision has been officially — foolishly — discredited by Hollywood executives and Internet trolls. Phoenix and Phillips project our contemporary social disorder onto DC Comics. The clown figure classically evokes German expressionism, but Flex internalizes expressionist fear and revulsion — merely as a formulaic, commercial style. Flashbacks (about his past and his mother’s commitment in Arkham Asylum) show his imaginings as real: He’s always inside them, which is either a cheat or inept.
Phoenix savors Fleck’s anxiety (prancing down a staircase to Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll, Part One” in triumph and madness), but the film’s irony overload leaves his mental and physical contortions inexpressive. (He takes up insanity where Nicolas Cage left off, but Cage had better luck with Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance and Mom and Dad.) Fleck’s obsession with TV host Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro) detours into meta territory (1982’s The King of Comedy, Scorsese’s own ironic dystopian vision), which is merely another actor’s fetish.
When Prince posed as Joker in his 1989 Partyman music video that accompanied Tim Burton’s first Batman movie, his showbiz mania satirized the entire Warners-Batman enterprise — biting the hand that fed him. Since then, Nolan has created an audience that seems indebted to Hollywood hegemony, inspiring filmmakers such as Phoenix and Phillips who are incapable of analyzing their own motivations.
Phoenix and Phillips turn Joker into a sociopolitical mishmash. Clown-masked protesters (chanting Kill the Rich, Resist, We Are All Clowns) at first suggest political satire, but Phillips’s position is unclear: Are these Antifa clones sympathetic? Is Fleck’s madness a metaphor for political dementia? Do the marauding street thugs represent MS-13? Are the trio of white male subway louts who attack Fleck fantasies of white-supremacist privilege? De Niro’s cameo doesn’t fully account for his own recent series of public breakdowns, just as the Trump-like figure of Bruce Wayne’s father exists in a gray area of Hollywood indecision and conflicted imperatives. (Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was executive producer on Batman v Superman.) It becomes clear that Fleck’s neurological condition is not congenital, just an affectation — neurosis turned into urban psychosis.
When Fleck tells detectives searching for the vigilante, “I don’t believe in anything,” it is the ultimate homage to Nolan’s nihilism. In the final shot, Fleck becomes Joker, the king of anarchy, and pulls a bloody smile before the rioting street mob. This deliberately contrasts Batman v Superman’s Day of the Dead scene, reversing the mythic, moral foundation that Zack Snyder’s masterpiece provided. Only suffering and madness remain. Trump Derangement Syndrome takes over now that Snyder is gone. Joker could have been the Trump Derangement Syndrome movie to end them all, but TDS has become a franchise.