A run-down bathroom with a flickering fluorescent light, a swooning piece of music and some slow, deliberate moves. Those spare ingredients go into crafting this downbeat but memorable moment from “Joker.”
Since its debut a few weeks ago at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the top prize, Todd Phillips’s “Joker” has stirred up quite a tempest. Hands have been wrung about the movie’s supposed potential to inspire acts of real-life violence, and criticism of its brutal nihilism has been met with a counter-backlash, including from Phillips himself, who has been sounding off about the “far left” and “woke culture” and other threats to the ability of a murderous clown to make money unmolested. Meanwhile, the usual armies of skeptics and fans have squared off with ready-made accusations of bad faith, hypersensitivity and quasi-fascist groupthink.
We are now at the phase of the argument cycle when actual ticket buyers have a chance to see what all the fuss is about, which means that it’s also time for me to say my piece. And what I have to say is: Are you kidding me?
To be worth arguing about, a movie must first of all be interesting: it must have, if not a coherent point of view, at least a worked-out, thought-provoking set of themes, some kind of imaginative contact with the world as we know it. “Joker,” an empty, foggy exercise in second-hand style and second-rate philosophizing, has none of that. Besotted with the notion of its own audacity — as if willful unpleasantness were a form of artistic courage — the film turns out to be afraid of its own shadow, or at least of the faintest shadow of any actual relevance.
It barely even works within the confines of its own genre, the comic-book movie. “Joker” is a supervillain origin story, involving a character whose big-screen résumé already includes three Oscar winners (two for other roles, but still). It’s not hard to see the appeal. The Joker, an embodiment of pure anarchy, can be played light or heavy, scary or fun or all at once. He can sneer like Jack Nicholson, snarl like Heath Ledger or … I’m still not sure what Jared Leto was doing, but never mind