Joker is the type of film I wish I liked more than I actually did. When I first saw this movie in cinemas I was like “wow”, but when I recently re-watched it at home I was like “eh”. And that’s not to say that Joker is a bad movie – it’s not – but at the same time you don’t really have a lot to do while watching this film.
But what does that even mean? Well, my problem with Joker is that while I do appreciate how everything we see Arthur Fleck go through on his journey into becoming the title character makes sense, is well presented and is generally well written, I just couldn’t find it in myself to be entertained. There’s simply nothing for us to do except wait for an ending we all know is very slowly coming. I realise that might sound dumb, since I’m essentially complaining about the very premise of the film, so allow me to elaborate:
Compare this to a similarly slow title where 90% of the action takes place in the third act, the 1978 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and you have one film that doesn’t encourage the audience to engage with what’s happening and one that does. The first two acts of Invasion of the Body Snatchers are incredibly slow paced and action is very short lived. But because you are trying to guess who might be a pod-person, who’s the next target and who will be most at risk when it all kicks-off, you’re doing more than just anticipating a finale by actively engaging with the film. This movie constantly raises questions for the audience to think about because the characters don’t immediately have the answers to them – by design you can’t trust anyone in this film because any moment they aren’t on screen could indicate they’re now part of an alien hivemind, while it could equally just mean they’re chilling out and blending in. We’re not just watching the movie play out, we’re engaging with it’s story in the same way the characters are by actively making assumptions about everyone within it. In that respect we are in the situation with them, which we simply aren’t in Joker. Arthur Fleck doesn’t even become all that unpredictable until the last scene of the film. The rest of the time he’s just a sad man becoming more sad. And even when does do some unpredictable things – like bringing a gun to a children’s hospital – the outcome is predictable. He is punished. So there’s nothing for us to wonder about this character or his situation. It all just unfolds without much ambiguity.
How about we look at the original Halloween film; a fairer comparison, in my opinion, because it is very simplistic in premise, like Joker is. In Halloween nothing really happens at all for the first two acts aside from Michael Myers stealing a car to escape a mental asylum. Most of the runtime is spent on people trying, and failing, to find him while he ominously stalks teens from a distance. But because of his blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearances you find yourself looking into the corner of every frame trying to spot where Michael will pop up next. Did he seriously drive by Doctor Loomis in broad day-light, inside the very car he stole from him at the start of the film, while the poor Doctor had his back turned? Yes he did and no attention is drawn to it, so you feel rewarded for spotting it and continue to try and spot him throughout the slower sections of the film. Again, you’re engaging with the film even when it’s at it’s most sluggish points, for reasons beyond the eventual release of tension in the finale.
But in Joker there’s nothing to engage with outside of what this movie offers at face value; merely watching Arthur become more broken. There’s nothing to anticipate apart from his inevitable breaking point, which we all know is coming anyway, and nothing to look at outside of his life. For that reason I feel as though the slow pace actually harms the movie and like it could have used some more excitement if it wasn’t willing to give us more to engage with. Sure, we all knew the pod people would win in Body Snatchers and that the boogyman would be thwarted in Halloween, but those films had more to offer outside of their natural build up to those moments. Again, I will stress that Arthur’s arc is done well. Being as objective as possible, I can’t really complain about how his arc written or executed, it’s just that there’s nothing else this movie is interested in giving you. All of it’s eggs are in one basket, and that basket is pretty dull when it goes on for two hours.
It’s a shame because there was lots of potential to add stuff. Like when we hear there are rats infesting Gotham – Why didn’t we see any? The movie does such a good job in the opening , in terms of set design, as it establishes Gotham as this poverty, trash engulfed city. So why doesn’t it double down on the news reports, that constantly talk about how much worse it’s getting, by visually showing us how bad it can get? When Arthur takes his anger out on a bag of trash cans in an alley, why not add some rats running away so we can all sit on our chairs and go “oh, look, there’s the super rats the movie has mentioned twice already”? Maybe add some in that run-down train station where Arthur shoots a man – have them scurry away at the sound of his gunshot. Maybe have the visual state of the city deteriorate further as the riots occur to signify how Arthur’s actions have made a bad situation worse in a more subtle way?
Okay, to be fair, there was one point in the movie that did have that bit of extra engagement; it was when it’s revealed that Arthur imagined his entire relationship with that nameless woman. Her talking to Arthur in a way we haven’t seen before by asking who he is, telling him he’s in the wrong apartment and stuff, gave me more to think about aside from how crappy Arthur’s life is. It was good. It also lasted all of two-minutes and we never saw her again. And while it did confirm Arthur to be an unreliable narrator, it also (weridly) didn’t recontextualise the movie at all… Like the film is happy to say that sure, Arthur lied to us about that romance crap, but he didn’t about anything else. If the intent was there to try and make me question the rest of the film too, it didn’t work on me. Because even if this means the whole film is a lie told by Arthur, so what? He’s the only narrator and thus we have to take what he says at face value unless the film telegraphs to us otherwise.
I guess that Batman stuff was supposed to be engaging too? I don’t know. I was fine with Thomas Wayne being this rich asshole for us to root against, but having Bruce Wayne as a child in this at all was nothing short of forced fan service. They put him in the movie for two scenes and they’re both bad. First, Arthur does a magic trick, and then Alfred tells Arthur to go away, and then the scene ends. And then there’s a riot at the end of the film caused by Arthur, and a rioter kills Bruce’s parents, and then the scene transitions to something actually relevant to it’s story. If you cut Bruce Wayne from this film entirely nothing would change. Even Arthur being told to go away by Alfred would be justified if Bruce wasn’t there for him to be inappropriate around. So if this was meant to provide extra engagement, it utterly failed on all fronts aside from making me go “oh, Batman’s in this movie, I guess”.
I suppose I should acknowledge how I’ve given schlock like Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla much more favourable reviews than this, despite them offering little to engage with outside of the premise of ludicrously dumb monster fights. And it’s because no, not every film needs these extra layers to work – least of all campy stuff of that kind. The difference is that while films like Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla don’t encourage you to do any extra thinking because they know they can’t deliver on that front in the slightest, Joker really desperately wants you to be analysing it, and I just don’t think it’s got all that much going on a highschool film student couldn’t point out. On another note, while we also have little to anticipate in most other formulaic superhero blockbusters other than a big fight at the end at least those movies are fun and not… Just depressing throughout. Point is, I personally would take dumb fun over this any day of the week.
Hell, the media’s reaction to this film was infinitely more thought provoking than the film itself. For some reason respected news outlets started reporting that this film would incite shootings and murders, and would appeal to incels and terrorists. None of that happened and they all looked stupid since all they achieved was giving this movie free publicity. Ironically what did happen, roughly around the time of this film’s premier, was a machette attack at a cinema showing Disney’s Frozen 2… And it got shockingly little coverage compared to the fake fear mongering surrounding Joaquin Phoenix dressing like a clown and being depressed.
So with that in mind, that I found it near impossible to be entertained by Joker, would I recommend it? Probably not. It certainly has a story to tell and some good performances from actors I like, but it’s just not particularly engaging. The long runtime doesn’t help because after the first hour of watching Arthur become depressed you find yourself thinking “okay, I get it” and then the film just keeps on going and going and going, with depressing episode after depressing episode… Clearly this wasn’t made for me.
Maybe if you’re a comicbook fan and care about the Joker in that way, you’ll get something out of this. But for me, who has read like one neat comic with the Joker in it and thought it was pretty good, and nothing else, I just couldn’t get into this at all.