You Tried celebrates remarkable performances in widely hated films — actors who kept us watching long after we should’ve left the cinema in disgust. Eliza Janssen chooses one such role each month and figures out its appeal amidst an otherwise shit movie.
THE MOVIE: Joker (2019), a gritty supervillain origin story that won the Venice Golden Lion.
WHY IT SUCKS: For better or worse, Joker is the most distinctively 2019 film that came out last year. It’s a superhero movie tie-in, and wrung its audience of all their goodwill for the recognisable, trademarked DC characters that have dominated film for the last 30 years. It follows the Green Book (2018) trend of a formerly low-brow comedy director aspiring towards awards-bait filmmaking about “””social issues”””. Through the movie’s relatively promising trailer, replete with the still-trendy ‘ironic use of an upbeat song despite gritty visuals’, Todd Phillips and co succeeded in generating a sense of vitality and mystery in the somewhat worn Joker character. somehow, after the completeness of Ledger’s Joker and the grating Leto iteration, I felt prompted to again ask of The Joker, “what’s the deal with this guy?”
My answer, after watching Joker a second time: idk?????
Despite devoting an entire film to the unknowable freak best known for ruining Batman’s day for the last 80 years, Joker can’t seem to muster any fucks as to pinning down just what makes Arthur Fleck tick. Does his descent into violence stem from child abuse? Daddy issues? A vague desire to be stand-up comedian despite seemingly never having practiced or performed comedy? I don’t expect films with graphic or disturbing scenes to fully explain or justify themselves in order to Protect The Children, but I guess I do expect them to elaborate on their supposed interest in digging into an existing character’s twisted origin.
Like Fight Club (1999), Joker has inevitably become a beacon to a very particular demographic of white guys drawn to both films’ anarchic glee in depicting the destruction of malfunctioning social systems by which they feel targeted. The difference is that in Fight Club, ringleader Tyler Durden was always kept at a distance from the viewer — a homoerotic alpha-male object of desire whom the protagonist must ultimately burn to the ground. There is no room for anyone but The Joker in Phillips’ vision though, meaning that none of the other characters are afforded any meagre instances of sympathy or insight. We only see Joker through Arthur Fleck’s unreliable eyes, making every plot action feel leadenly convenient. Yuppie villains happen to know all the words to Sondheim’s ‘Send In The Clowns’, because that would be witty and relevant; Arthur happens to find a staff uniform so he can sneak into one of Thomas Wayne’s events.
Joker is only ever maddening in an empty way, with its dialogue consisting mostly of snippy Hot Topic T-shirt slogans like “I used to think my life was a tragedy… but now I realise it’s a fuckin’ comedy” (Jared Leto must be green[er] with envy). And, worst of all, its perfunctory attempts to depict mental illness make the whole thing a drearily stern affair, borrowing from the best of 1970s urban crime classics without bothering to soak up any of their complexity or lurid thrills. Why so serious, Todd?
THE PERFORMANCE: Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck/The Joker
WHY IT’S GREAT: From its promotional materials to its resolute dependence on close-ups of Arthur’s contorted face, Joker is, from top to bottom, an instance of the actor as auteur. Joaquin Phoenix’s rangy impulsivity and physical commitment is the sole original component of a film that otherwise simply apes the look and depth of existing Scorsese and Friedkin films.
Phoenix’s influences are made thuddingly obvious in the film’s referential script – he has Rupert Pupkin’s delusions of grandeur, Travis Bickle’s proto-incel obsessiveness over an empathetic, well-adjusted woman, even Charlie Chaplin’s melancholic dance style. But there’s also an unclassifiable animal heartbeat underneath all that, a similarly simian body language and stunted manner to The Master’s (2012) Freddy Quell, accented with a genuinely spooky witch cackle of a laugh.
Great actors like Robert De Niro and Brian Tyree Henry are reduced to reactive roles, merely positioned as foils of normalcy to be freaked out by The Joker (when Zazie Beetz’s manic pixie single mom/girl next door showed up on my rewatch, I realised I had totally forgotten about her character and its facile purpose in the film). But maybe that’s actually a testament to Phoenix’s mesmeric abilities, and not just the film’s simplistic tunnel vision of Arthur Fleck as a cool, dark supervillain for grown-up audiences.
In an interview with USA Today, Phoenix quickly summarises his vision for the character and film, a meta-commentary which I can’t see as being fully realised in the final cut of Joker; “The joke of the movie is we make you feel for (Arthur) for a long part. The joke is on the audience, so to speak, to the point where you’re like, ‘I felt for this guy and he’s a lunatic.’” That joke doesn’t land to me as a viewer, but Phoenix’s intention here raises the film far above what it could’ve been.
BEST MOMENT: Where the script fails to flesh out Arthur’s dreams of standup comedy success, Phoenix goes for broke, making a few scant moments actually pretty funny, such as when Arthur angrily punches out of work by literally beating the shit out of the punch-card machine.
DID JOAQUIN PHOENIX REDEEM JOKER? Nah. Joker might’ve been most interesting as a Being There-esque story of how an outsider’s marginal way of thinking can be adopted by the uncaring masses and used for good or evil, but Phillips never hones in on exactly how Arthur feels about the rioting throng of clowns he inadvertently causes. By the film’s end, we’re meant to feel a vague sense of victory — that Arthur has stuck it to the fat cats and become a warped version of his ‘best self’ — but the more you look at that feeling of conclusion, the less you see.
Phillips’ and co-writer Scott Silver’s script is inconsistent in its understanding of Arthur, which is kind of a big problem when your movie is little else than a supervillain character study — he can be alternately witty and sarcastic, and then childishly naïve on a dime, and not in a concerted bipolar way. The climactic scene of Fleck murdering his talk-show hero Murray Franklin feels more like a fanboy power fantasy than any real conclusion to the character’s undefined motives. But at least Phoenix chows into the histrionics, speaking in a flamboyant Southern Belle-esque voice for some fucking reason.
Reports suggest that Phoenix went Too Deep on set and dislocated his knee while viciously kicking a dumpster for one scene of Arthur’s despair, all in the mighty name of Method Acting. But those emo theatre kid shenanigans are kind of secondary to the real power of Phoenix’s performance — while he fails to redeem Phillips’ effort, the entire film rests squarely on his brittle shoulders, and I feel certain that it couldn’t have been made with anyone else in the greasepaint.
Phoenix is undeniable — he’s da Jokah, baby.
Eliza Janssen is a Melbourne writer of criticism and screenplays who wants you to know that there are pterodactyls in the background of the breakfast table montage in Citizen Kane. For more information visit elizajanssen.com / @eliza_janssen.