Joker Picture

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from the film “Joker.”

I wanted to love “Joker” so much. I figured this column would become totally “Joker” focused, with weekly installments detailing different aspects of “Joker’s” genius. It was probably my most anticipated film of the year, and this is a year with a “Star Wars” and a Noah Baumbach film, my two favorite movie genres.

There were plenty of reasons for expectations being high. For anyone who has mercifully missed out on the last six months of “Joker” discourse, here’s a brief rundown. The first trailer dropped in April, and almost immediately became a meme. The quality of the movie was almost secondary. The idea of Todd Phillips (“The Hangover trilogy,” “Old School”) making an exploration of Batman’s arch-nemesis without featuring Batman was just an irresistible premise. But between the viral jokes and memes, another, crazier idea started to take hold: What if “Joker” was good?

It sure looked like a possibility. The trailer was excellent, atmospheric and creepy, and having an actor of Joaquin Phoenix’s quality play the Clown Prince of Crime was very tantalizing. The idea that “Joker” could be good, maybe even an Oscar contender, seemed to be solidified when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where it received a rapturous eight-minute ovation after the first showing. It ended up winning the Golden Lion, the festivals’ top prize, which has gone to films as storied and legendary as “Rashomon” and “Brokeback Mountain.” It really seemed plausible that the best movie of 2019 might be the “Hangover” guy’s take on the Joker.

But, after all the buildup, I didn’t love “Joker.” And it wasn’t for any moral panic reason. Though you’d be forgiven for thinking that after months of clickbait headlines about how “Joker” is a celebration of solitary, white male mass murderers or how it is supposedly so triggering and violent that the U.S. Military and undercover police have infiltrated screenings to watch for crazed gunmen who think the Batman clown guy wants them to kill people.

It’s just that “Joker” isn’t that good. It’s pastiche pushed to the point of parody, an uneven collection of New York New Wave film clichés that it never has any sense of its own identity. It’s nihilism without any balance, a cheap attempt to be shocking that forgets that shock comes from narrative value, not just from showing violence and screaming “Isn’t this just so twisted?” into an uncaring audience. For all the good that is in this movie, and there’s a decent amount of it, it’s overshadowed by a stubborn desire to be taken seriously that backfires and turns the whole movie into a strange sort of cosmic joke about 21{sup}st{/sup} century culture and moviemaking. The problem is that nobody is laughing.

“Joker” follows Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck (The fact that the main character’s name is a cheap joke on the famously disgruntled actor who formerly played Batman kind of tells you all you need to know about “Joker”), a severely mentally disabled man. Fleck is living in poverty with his mother in Gotham City (which looks suspiciously like grimy, 1970’s New York). His only source of joy seems to be the talk show staring Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, hilariously underused), who is sort of like Jay Leno in that he’s a late night talk show host and he’s also not funny.

Fleck colors him dim life via his beloved job as a party clown, and the weekly therapist sessions he gets via public assistance. When both those outlets disappear, the darkness takes over. “I just hope my death makes more cents than my life,” Arthur writes, his spelling errors shining through.

There are times when “Joker’s” spell works. Phoenix is truly phenomenal. To see him slowly dance to a symphony of violence is an unforgettable movie experience.

But by and large, “Joker” fails. It desperately wants to legitimize comic book movies, except it forgets that has already happened. Last year’s “Black Panther” used a Marvel Studios world (and a Marvel Studios budget) to examine colonialism and racial oppression. It scored a Best Picture nomination for its trouble.

You get the feeling that Todd Phillips didn’t actually want to make a movie about the Joker. He wanted to make an homage to 1970s filmmaking, the works of Martin Scorsese in particular (“Joker” is effectively a soft remake of “Taxi Driver” with a little sprinkling of “The King of Comedy”). Phillips probably knew that the only way he could get a studio to give him $60 million to make a gritty psychological thriller would be to jam Batman into it. I’d love to see a version of “Joker” stripped of its comic book movie conventions. As it stands now, “Joker” is a cynical attempt to upset the Hollywood status quo. But it’s just not good enough to do that. The only rioting that this movie could cause would be sparked by boredom.

In 2008’s “The Dark Knight,” the late Heath Ledger plays the Joker. He won an Oscar. 2019’s “Joker” largely exists in its predecessor’s shadow. This is partially because Ledger’s performance remains the single most famous and iconic thing to happen in movies in the 21{sup}st{/sup} century, but also because his characterization is so much more interesting than what we get here. Phoenix’s Joker gets lost in its attempt to be shocking and legitimate. Ledger’s succeeds by remembering that while superhero movies can be dark, they’re also supposed to be fun.

“When the chips are down,” Ledger’s Joker growls, “these civilized people, they’ll eat each other.” For better or worse, “Joker” is the sound of the chewing.

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