‘Joker’ Reviewed: Predicting the Punchline

Few films in recent years have generated as much excitement, controversy and, yes, fear as “Joker,” director Todd Phillips’ dark and twisted origin story about the infamous DC Comics villain. Scrutinized for its potential to inspire real-world violence, “Joker” details one lonely man’s transformation from outcast to killer — all from a highly subjective (and arguably dangerous) point of view.


The fact that “Joker” has elicited such scrutiny, igniting a debate over the moral responsibilities of filmmakers and the dangers of life imitating art, may be a testament to the film’s artistic merits, of its deep subjective power as an inwardly focused character study. On the other hand, it could be that the film is simply irresponsible, lacking the nuance to coherently comment on such potentially toxic material. 


Regardless of which side of the debate you fall on, one thing is undeniable: “Joker” is an incredibly intense and provocative viewing experience. Much of this intensity can be attributed to Joaquin Phoenix’s astonishing and unnerving portrayal of Arthur Fleck, a street clown and aspiring stand-up comedian with a history of mental illness and abuse. Throughout the film, Fleck’s already fragile mental state becomes increasingly erratic as he is subjected to a pattern of social ridicule and physical beatings.


These events serve as the catalyst for Fleck’s dark character arc — a slow burn that Phoenix brings to a boil with a twisted, serpentine performance. Phoenix captures the full range of Fleck’s wounded psyche in both subtle and explosive physical manifestations, from an uncontrollable, high-pitched laugh to a wordless, wraithlike dance. 


The result is a mesmerizing and, to be fair, troubling portrayal that elicits as much sympathy as it does fear. For this reason, Phoenix anchors the film as both its emotional center and its central conflict. His performance is a dual performance: Arthur Fleck as victim and Joker as victimizer. What’s unclear is what separates these two personas. Is it mental illness? Social isolation? Toxic masculinity and violence? 


While the answer could be a combination of all of these factors and more, “Joker” isn’t concerned about providing an explanation — for better or worse. Instead, Phillips and co-screenwriter Scott Silvers simply allude to some of 2019’s most acute fears and anxieties, using them as emotional texture but refusing (or failing) to respond to any of them.


Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in “Joker,” directed by Todd Phillips.


What’s remarkable is that “Joker” has generated all this discourse over 2019 issues without actually taking place in 2019. Set in the early 1980s, the Gotham City in “Joker” resembles, by no mere coincidence, the gritty New York City character studies from around the same period — namely, the Martin Scorsese-directed masterworks “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy.” 


Both films are clear influences for “Joker.” They both center on mentally unstable and obsessive men who, to varying degrees, resort to violence when they are shunned by society and subjected to ridicule.


The influence of “Taxi Driver” is apparent through the aesthetics of “Joker,” from Phoenix’s Travis Bickle-inspired physicality to the neon-infused city streets, brought to life with exceptional, richly detailed art direction. “The King of Comedy,” however, serves as a much more direct and, at times, blatant blueprint for Arthur Fleck’s character arc. A prime example is Fleck’s central motivation as an aspiring stand-up comedian, which is lifted straight from the Scorsese film. So too is the casting of the legendary Robert De Niro.


In “The King of Comedy,” De Niro plays Rupert Pupkin, an unhinged comic who idolizes talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), going to extreme lengths to force his way onto Langford’s show. In “Joker,” the roles are reversed, as De Niro now plays comedy gatekeeper Murray Franklin, the talk show host that Fleck watches obsessively and fantasizes about, just as Pupkin did with Langford.


And yet, for all their similarities, “The King of Comedy” and “Joker” are drastically different films. For one, the threat of violence is much more explicit and immediate in “Joker,” as is the central character’s mental instability. While Rupert Pupkin’s mental delusions and social miscues certainly play a role in “The King of Comedy,” they don’t altogether define him. 


Instead, Pupkin’s dreams — or, rather, his obsessions — of being a stand-up comedian drive him, motivating every action he takes, no matter how extreme. In “Joker,” the inverse seems to be true: Arthur Fleck’s mental state overrides any hopes and dreams he might actually have. The film’s focus remains squarely fixed on his mental deterioration and the negative social interactions that contribute to it.


In “The King of Comedy,” there’s a wonderfully revealing interaction between Pupkin and Langford that captures the essence of the movie. In it, Langford admonishes the amateur comic, saying, “You don’t say, ‘Folks, here’s the punchline.’ You just do the punchline.”


With this basic rule of comedy in mind, Scorsese’s film could be analyzed in the same manner as a joke. Indeed, Scorsese provides characterization and plot complications as his “setup” before delivering an ending that is both surprising and expected, illuminating and re-contextualizing everything that came before it. In other words, he delivers a “punchline” without announcing its arrival. 


In “Joker,” it feels as if Phillips and Silver didn’t trust their story quite enough to deliver their own punchline. The film, in one way or another, repeatedly predicts its arrival, telling us when and even why the punchline is going to happen.


That punchline, of course, is Arthur Fleck’s transformation into the Joker, which, due to the film’s popular source material, is already prefigured for the viewer from the outset. However, what isn’t prefigured is the setup — the characterization and plot complications that give weight and meaning to the punchline, or climax. Unfortunately, the setup in “Joker” is occasionally wasted on surface-level exposition and ready-made interpretations that eliminate ambiguity and thematic possibilities.


As an example, one of Fleck’s delusions is explained away in an unnecessary flashback sequence late in the film, spelling out the character’s flailing mental state instead of pushing the audience to find their own interpretations. In this way, ambiguity is removed and the film’s climax is somewhat neutered. While “The King of Comedy” brilliantly aligns comedy with obsession, using its setup to bring its punchline into the context of toxic celebrity culture, “Joker” doesn’t allow itself to take on a similarly interpretive meaning.


And yet, all that isn’t to say that “Joker” doesn’t succeed or isn’t a good film. As a matter of fact, “Joker” is a very good film — if not a great one — and impresses as a bold reinvention of the comic book genre. It’s a film that’s indebted to movies of a certain era, however, and its greatest moments almost exclusively arise out of moments of homage, as opposed to wholly original ideas.


To be sure, the film’s inability to say something new on its own, to comment on the world outside of itself, could be seen as a potential shortcoming. But at the same time, any shortage of interpretative subtext could also be viewed as a fitting reflection of its nihilistic antagonist (or is it protagonist?). After all, Fleck rejects any political or ideological motivations for his anarchy, instead referring to his life as, simply, a “comedy.” 


How’s that for a punchline?


— Clinton Olsasky


“Joker” is currently playing at Des Moines-area multiplexes.