Uh oh, I ended up enjoying the disreputable movie about the Crime Clown, may the gods of Good Taste have mercy on me. The angry backlash surrounding Todd Phillips’s supervillain origin story Joker has been raging since before the movie was even theatrically released, so I can’t imagine that its recent anointment as this year’s Oscars Villain is going to make my defense of it any easier. Even I balked at the film’s existence when watching its early trailers, seeing nothing about what it was promising that hadn’t already been accomplished expertly in You Were Never Really Here & The King of Comedy. Yet, watching Joker on the big screen recently (thanks to its Oscars-boosted second run) I didn’t find anything that really needed defending. None of the endless months of vitriolic complaints against its honor resonated with me in the theater, where I mostly just saw a creepy character study anchored by an effectively chilling performance. If anything, the fact that a movie this unassuming and, frankly, this trashy was somehow causing chaos in the Oscars discourse only made it more perversely amusing.
On a plot level, there’s nothing remarkable here. Phillips merely piles another gritty comic book movie on top of the pile by replacing De Niro’s deranged stand-up comedian Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy with The Clown Prince of Crime. Joker checks off all the necessary boxes to function as both an unimaginative Batman movie (yes, that includes a shot of Mrs. Wayne’s pearls) and as a middling Scorsese riff. There’s not even any room for surprise in the titular arch-villain’s transformation from sign-twirling clown-for-hire to deranged serial killer, since he already looks like a homicidal maniac in clown drag from scene one. The only relatively daring narrative specificity here is setting the film during the grimy days of a 1980s NYC (excuse me, “Gotham”) garbage strike, but even that choice reeks of Scorsese worship. This is not a film that desperately wants to surprise you, though. We all know the sign-twirling clown will become a murder clown by the third act, and in the meantime the soundtrack bombards us with the least imaginative song cues conceivable (including “Send in the Clowns” and “Everybody Plays the Fool,” but somehow not “Tears of a Clown”?).
I don’t see all this routine adherence to prescribed story templates as intellectual laziness, however. It’s just an exercise in genre. Like many great genre films, Joker overcomes its narrative familiarity with other virtues – namely in the bizarre screen presence of Juaquin Phoenix in the central role. Like Tom Hardy’s Herculean feat of transforming Venom from microwaved superhero leftovers to deeply strange camp fest all by his lonesome, Phoenix miraculously carves out a deeply weird character study from these uninspired backdrops. From his alien skeletal contortions in the sign-twirling clowns’ locker room to his piercing laughter at the exact wrong social cues to his public displays of bedroom-dancing, Phoenix delivers a genuine nightmare of a performance, flash-freezing my blood as soon as the first scene. I was too terrified of what he might do from moment to moment to worry about how pedestrian the film around him was. If anything, heightening the world around him to match his energy might have been too overwhelming. The familiar backdrop of a “gritty,” Scorsese-inspired comic book movie was just the muted tone his loud, upsetting presence needed to pop against in contrast.
The great irony of Joker is that much ado has been made about its political messaging where there is none, which is the exact folly that’s depicted in the film’s third act. Joker has become a popular irl boogeyman as a call-to-arms for potentially dangerous white men to rise up in revolt. Such a revolt is depicted in the film itself, with thousands of rioters taking to the streets in clown masks, inspired by the Crime Clown’s perceived “Kill the Rich” ethos. The thing that he has no awareness of class politics, and his adoring proto-Anonymous fans are reading into what’s essentially a blank slate of a hero. He might as well be Forest Gump or Chauncey Gardner, offering only empty platitudes like “What’s the world come to?” and “Is it just me or is it getting crazier out there?” when prompted for an opinion on the state of things. If anything, the film functions like a horror movie about how scary isolated white men on the fringe can be once they’re fired up. Anyone who finds a hero in this indiscriminate murderer is deliberately searching for validation of their own already-established political agenda on a blank canvas – which is exactly what happens in the movie. This is a character study of a dangerous creep, not the incel dog whistle it’s been reported to be. Anyone who finds meaning there is just another kind of clown.
Of course, all art is inherently political in some way, and there’s been plenty of valid critique lobbed at Joker for its representation of racial power dynamics and mental health crises in particular. I don’t want to be dismissive of those claims, but I believe they mostly just point to the kind of movie this is at its rotten core: a trashy genre picture that has no real place being lauded in a prim & proper Awards Season context. I found Joker to be a deeply upsetting creep-out, thanks almost exclusively to Phoenix’s outright demonic performance. It’s rare that a slimy, grimy movie like that sneaks into Awards consideration, and a lot of people apparently don’t know what to do with it in that context except to get loud & get angry. Personally, I’m starting to find this particular bit of Oscars Season Chaos perversely amusing in a way I didn’t with past Awards Season villains like Green Book or Three Billboards. In other words, I used think that Joker’s existence was a tragedy, but now I realize it’s a comedy.