Months before even a trailer, everyone (involved and observers) was comparing Joker to Scorsese classics, Taxi Driver and King of Comedy. A movie should stand on its own terms no matter how indebted to homage but Joker tries to fashion itself as an entry into the “troubled man on the fringes of society” canon so it’s impossible not to view the film’s success contingent on if it can measure up to the standard set by its predecessors.
What’s unique about King of Comedy and Taxi Driver is their structure: psychological character studies that show their subjects just existing, in almost banal fashion until their resentment to the world at large, builds and builds to an explosion of violence. I call this genre “Gas Leak Drama” because that’s what it feels like… a palpable dread that begins unnoticed but keep getting worse and worse until there’s no escape. The genre isn’t only owned by Marty, 2017 had two great films existing in these parameters: Taxi Driver’s screenwriter, Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, which changes setting from urban decay to a historic church and Lynne Ramsey’s You Were Never Really Here (also starring Joaquin Phoenix as a troubled man who lives with his mother). Joker really wants to be in this club, it almost got Scorsese on board as a producer and casting DeNiro in a meta talk show role, calling back to his King of Comedy character, Rupert Pupkin.
Joker nails the look of Gotham, completely overtaken by atrophy and lawlessness. Mark Friedberg, the film’s Production designer, creates a decrepit city modeled after Taxi Driver’s New York. The inhabitants and storefronts are a timeless mix of 40s and 80s style. I’ve never seen a movie with such incredible design but minimal atmosphere to complement. And atmosphere is the key ingredient in what makes this genre feel like a gas leak.
Todd Phillips’ Joker cares more about what’s happening in the simple plot than establishing character driven existential dread. It all rests on Joaquin Phoenix’s transcendent acting as Arthur Fleck. Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger’s Jokers are men who have rejected society and decided to do a nihilistic parody. Even though they dress insane, the roots to Earth still exist. Phoenix’s take is completely alien. Not too dissimilar to Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, when Phoenix shares the scene with any other actor it’s apparent he’s existing in an entirely different reality. A zoo animal separated from his scene partner by invisible glass. His body contorts, he barely seems in control and his laugh is piercing and uncomfortable. Unfortunately, we don’t learn what makes him tick but just what he does: work, live with his mother, takes psych meds, etc. There’s no build or tension as Fleck gets more deranged, it just happens.
What’s confusing is how we’re supposed to view Arthur. In King of Comedy, we clearly know that Pupkin is pathetic and the issues he causes are his own but Joker is unclear as Arthur flips constantly between victim and aggressor. Phillips (who also penned the script with Scott Silver) even tries to scapegoat Fleck’s condition as being a product of “society” (which is vaguely described). It’s not intentional ambiguity, just lazy filmmaking from the director of The Hangover: Part III. With no clear point of view, the film has a hard time justifying its own existence except as a vehicle for Phoenix to be a great actor.
Comparatively, Joker is better than other comic book movies and I appreciate how its violence has consequences (it will forever be more harmful to show Thanos committing a bloodless genocide than Joker shooting a few guys on a subway in detail). Other elements work and don’t to varying degrees (score: nope, explicit ties to Batman mythos: cringey, cinematography/lighting: pretty good), but ultimately Joker fails to capture key components of a Gas Leak Drama. Too bad it masquerades as one…