So many folks I know want to talk about “Joker.” They’ve read in or sought out or describe a welter of divergent yet thoughtful interpretations, and Todd Phillips’ aggrieved movie may be more valuable, on its way to a $900-million worldwide gross, as a vessel in which viewers invest themselves in concerns that range from societal disregard of the mentally challenged, class, economic equality or the merely odd than as a great film. Even if “Joker” merely suggests or implies or shoehorns, the conversations have been plentiful and good and that may be worth more than a fully realized Gotham City-set shriek of powerlessness. Phillips has finagled what genre director Phil Karlson called “little pieces of truth” into “Joker.”
“Why so spurious?” was my reaction to early outrage, when only the festival caravan and a few reviewers had seen the movie. Cicada-furious clickbait rose in air.
On the rare instance that I loathe a movie as much as the early going of “Joker,” it can turn out years later that I love it. About forty minutes into the often-flabbergasting Babbitry of “Joker,” there’s a duet for performer and cello (Joaquin Phoenix, composer Hildur Guðnadottir) that seethes: silken, serpentine motion combined with two minutes of unexpected musical beauty. The effect is as if the shooting of three Wall Street bullies had electrified Arthur Fleck’s body with the entire storyline of the never-made third season of “The OA.” Earlier in his dingy apartment, Arthur is possessed as if an Egon Schiele wraith, contorting his bare-chested, emaciate torso; coming after the subway incident, this scene suggests he is now “clothed” in the persona he is about to take on. In that moment, Phoenix’s seven-meds A. Fleck takes the twitch from his Freddie Quell.
I was smitten, if only for a moment, convinced this could be a scene that persuaded the jury members at the Venice Film Festival, led by Lucrecia Martel and including Shinya Tsukamoto, Piers Handling, Stacy Martin, Mary Harron, Paolo Virzì and Rodrigo Prieto to hand it the top prize. (The repeated, blunt tabloid headlines of “KILL THE RICH” may also have tickled fierce filmmakers like Martel, Harron and Tsukamoto.)
But beyond Phoenix and the melancholy dream-drench of Guðnadottir’s gloriously grandiloquent lamentations, what is “Joker”? Among examples of Phillips’ contentious extracurricular bluster, the best may be what he told Vanity Fair for its Joaquin Phoenix cover story: ‘’We’re gonna take $55 million from Warner Bros. and do whatever the hell we want.” Thinking on the choice to blend and remake “Taxi Driver” and “King of Comedy,” it seemed like Phillips just wanted to spend that $55 million to swing from the chandelier like Martin Scorsese.
An archetypal Todd Phillips interview from the promotion of “The Hangover Part II.”
That reading, of “I want you to know what I know,” not, “I am compelled to show you a thing,” is not kind to “Joker.” The more I thought of “Joker” after seeing it three days before it opened, it got small and smaller, a package, a parcel, a lozenge, an afterthought, a regret.
But some small amount of air has rushed in: letting the conversations lap and wash and smooth its callow edges, “Joker” emerges as performance art, perhaps not like Phillips’ early work, a 1993 portrait of scat-punk GG Allin and a suppressed 1998 documentary about frat-house crimes that was partially fabricated. But still: a provocation. Performance art. And an ongoing conversation. 122m. (Ray Pride)
“Joker” is still playing.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.