'Joker,' starring Joaquin Phoenix, sparked an incel controversy because it's hopelessly hollow

If the new “Joker” movie actually had a real message, it might have been easier to defend.
Image: Joaquin Phoenix Joker
Joaquin Phoenix's sterling acting skills are wasted in this latest "Joker."Niko Tavernise / Warner Bros.
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By Ani Bundel

It feels like the new Joaquin Phoenix “Joker” movie has been out for months, as the discourse debating the film certainly has been. Was it a masterpiece or a mistake? An ode to complex humanity or violent “incel” white men? A great deal of speculative ink has been spilled, credible threats have been fielded by the FBI, and the New York City Police Department and others have stepped up security at screenings. Now, the film is finally here, and it turns out the piece of art that has caused such an uproar is nothing more than an incoherent, misbegotten and embarrassingly dull two hours. This is a movie that has nothing to say, which is ironic since so many have said so much about it ahead of time.

It turns out the piece of art that has caused such an uproar is nothing more than an incoherent, misbegotten and embarrassingly dull two hours.

Directed, produced and co-written by Todd Phillips, he of “The Hangover” trilogy and other painfully misanthropic comedies, “Joker” is an attempt at drama through humor. Based on the “Batman” comic villain from the 1940s, the movie tries to turn the narrative of the famous caped crusader on its head, creating an origin story from the point of view of Batman’s archrival. The Joker, who famously wears clown makeup and sports green hair, is reimagined as a former children’s entertainer and failed stand-up comic, in the vein of Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy.” But there’s little in the way of laughs in this film, which instead lands with sadly predictable thuds.

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Considering the landscape of the cinematic world is currently rife with comic book movies, it makes sense that directors are searching for new perspectives. Nor is it revolutionary to tell the villain’s side of the story. Sony did it with “Venom” this time last year, mining the Spider-verse for stories that did not include the titular webslinger — for contractual reasons. But don’t tell that to “Joker.” This is a film that is convinced of its own subversiveness, practically crowing that it is getting away with something. (Phillips himself boasted in interviews that he sold the movie to star Phoenix by telling him they were making a “real movie” under the guise of a comic book framework.) If only it had something worth getting away with on screen.

“Joker” is extraordinarily frustrating because in one sense, it’s a wasted opportunity. Phoenix’s performance as Arthur, the proto-Joker, is, as usual, of the highest caliber. Robert De Niro graces the celluloid with his presence as a Johnny Carson/Jay Leno character named Murray Franklin. Zazie Beetz and Frances Conroy are both painfully underused in the two female roles, but are great in what little screentime they’re given. So it is confusing that the first 30 minutes are just one long cringe-fest as Arthur is routinely beaten up for little to no reason, while the next hour is a highly transparent guessing game of “what is real and what is delusion.” Throughout, the film references Scorsese so thoroughly, one wonders if the producers were giving the filmmaker residuals.

But the worst part comes at the end, when the film reveals how truly confused it is. There’s something about the rich getting richer and the downtrodden getting screwed, but no one ever really puts the pieces together, least of all Joker himself. Arthur starts a “movement” after murdering some rich white frat boys, but when asked why he demurs that he’s “not political” over and over. He just likes killing people.

There is a vague mush of right-wing and left-wing talking points that Phillips probably heard some intellectual types drunkenly pontificate about at a party once. But it’s really just nonsense.

Then there’s the “Joker” finale, which is a supposedly political speech delivered by the main character on prime-time TV. There is a vague mush of right-wing and left-wing talking points that Phillips probably heard some intellectual types drunkenly pontificate about at a party once. But it’s really just nonsense. The Joker doesn’t give a damn about politics, anyway. He’s just mad that people laughed at him, and not in the way he meant them too.

And this is where the real problem with this movie comes in. Beneath the faux-1970s New York setting, there’s no “there” there. This means that audiences can fill up the empty space with whatever they want to see. And that explains the amount of controversy that has preceded this movie. Show part of the film’s cut to survivors of the Aurora shooting, and they’re going to see a film that promotes random acts of violence. Show it to a room full of high-end critics at Venice, and they will give it a standing ovation (and the Golden Lion) for what they perceive as an investigation of nihilism of the modern age. Show it to a room full of angry white men who feel like the world somehow isn’t giving them what they are owed, and suddenly, people are asking if it’s meant as inspiration.

Warner Brothers put out a statement ahead of “Joker’s” release condemning gun violence in our society, but defending the film as “provok[ing] difficult conversations around complex issues.” Both the production studio and Phillips have argued the Joker character is not supposed to be seen as a hero. But the film does ask the audience to vaguely sympathize with him as an “incel” like white male, even if it provides very little context for why we should (or why we should not). So it’s not surprising the film has been interpreted as taking these men who murder friends, family members, classmates and strangers, and saying “but you understand we should feel sorry for them right?”

If “Joker” actually had a real message, that might have been easier to defend. Warner Brothers is right in the sense that society appears not to care all that much about preventing actual mass murders, so pushing back on murderous art feels hypocritical. But “Joker” is not taking a stand one way or another, and of all the things people can see within it, “complex” is certainly not one of them.