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Darkness no longer has much to do with feelings of alienation the filmmaker wants to express or purge, as was the case with a film like “Taxi Driver.” It’s not about exploring uncomfortable ideas, as was done in “The King of Comedy.”
Do you think Todd Phillips, who co-wrote and directed “Joker,” and references those movies so often you might expect that Martin Scorsese was enlisted as an executive producer here as a way of heading off a plagiarism lawsuit, really cares about income inequality, celebrity worship, and the lack of civility in contemporary society? I don’t know him personally but I bet he doesn’t give a toss. He’s got the pile he made on those “Hangover” movies—which some believe have indeed contributed to the lack of civility in etc.—and can not only buy up all the water that’s going to be denied us regular slobs after the big one hits, he can afford the bunker for after the bigger one hits.
As Gotham begins to burn (the civil unrest starts with a garbage strike), Fleck, who has been taken as a vigilante by much of the city’s 99%, doesn’t quite know what to make of his underground cult stardom. (The city is beset by rioters in clown makeup and clown masks; because this movie is rather suddenly behind the curve in “clowns-are-scary” awareness—only Pennywise gets a special dispensation these days—these sequences look like “The Revolt of the Juggalos” or something equally laughable.) His mom has been writing letters to her former employer, the magnate Thomas Wayne, and Arthur opens one of the missives and reads them, learning something disturbing.
The storyline in and of itself is not a total miss. But once the movie starts lifting shots from “A Clockwork Orange” (and yes, Phillips and company got Warners to let them use the Saul Bass studio logo for the opening credits, in white on red, yet) you know its priorities are less in entertainment than in generating self-importance. As social commentary, “Joker” is pernicious garbage. But besides the wacky pleasures of Phoenix’s performance, it also displays some major movie studio core competencies, in a not dissimilar way to what “A Star Is Born” presented last year.
The supporting players, including Glenn Fleshler and Brian Tyree Henry, bring added value to their scenes, and the whole thing feels like a movie. The final minutes, which will move any sentient viewer to mutter “would you just pick a goddamn ending and stick to it?” are likely an indication of what kind of mess we would have had on our hands had Phillips been left entirely to his own cynical incoherent devices for the entire runtime. Fortunately, he gets by with a little help from his friends.