Walking out of the cinema after watching Joker, the thing in my mind wasn’t Joaquin Phoenix’s extraordinary performance (though it is quite extraordinary), nor was it the sublime feat of direction by Todd Phillips (all the more sublime considering this is the guy who duuuuded out the Hangover trilogy), but simply this: it’s gross. It’s a gross film. It’s. Really. Fucking. Gross.
Granted, I know, gross isn’t exactly a film-critic term. But then Joker isn’t exactly a film. For one, it doesn’t so much contain a plot as a series of brutal jolts to the senses. It doesn’t so much contain characters as people who take and people who get taken. It doesn’t so much end as unexpectedly climax.
It’s porn, in other words, only without the nuance and occasional moments of care. I’m not saying it’s not stimulating if you’re into this kind of thing; I just don’t want to sit next to you while you’re being stimulated.
For the uninitiated, we’re back in the comic book city of Gotham, only this time in the Eighties, allowing the art director to pile the trash high and spread the grime thick.
There’s no Batman in sight – at least not as a man – and that, as the marketing material would have us believe, is the point.
This is an origin story, but not any origin story. It's the origin story of a villain, but not any origin story of a villain. It's an origin story that is purposefully standalone, not a start of a superhero series, but a character study of a man.
This is fine as it goes, and going in cold I was as excited as anyone. Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker? What’s not to like? But if you’re making a character study, shouldn’t you, at some point, study character?
No such luck. We meet Phoenix’s sad-sack Arthur Fleck, a skeleton who was at the back of the line when it came to flesh and who lives with his infirm mother in an apartment block that can be best described as post-apocalyptic chic. Fleck makes a living clowning for a clown agency and his days are mostly taken by holding signs outside of stores and scaring the remaining life out of sick kids in hospitals. When he accidentally drops a gun at the latter – given to him by a fellow clown; it’s tough out there for jesters – his life starts to unravel. You know: more so.
Fleck has a disorder that means he laughs involuntarily in awkward social situations, and a business card that informs people of the condition, to be given while he’s convulsing.
He’s on seven different medications, we learn at one point. What for? Who knows? In fact, the only thing we do know about his meds is that he wants more of them. More of which one, you ask? Joker does not bog itself down with such details. It wants to be taken seriously, but never gives us a reason that we should.
Fleck first kills in self-defence, and then for fun, and then for... I don’t know, Nectar points?
Is it too much to ask if there’s a point to all this? Apparently so, and here’s where Joker as a film starts to curdle from clumsily dim-witted to accidentally dangerous.
Finding that others soon join him in dressing like a clown and killing people – and after being humiliated by a talk-show host, played by Robert De Niro, and exacting his revenge – our villain soon finds himself the movie's hero.
And if the camera could sprout arms and give Phoenix a reach-around at this point, I suspect it would.
And this, believe it or not, is the point: Phillips is so deeply, desperately, embarrassingly in love with Phoenix’s performance that the camera never leaves him, never comes up for air once, and, as a result, never for a second gives anyone else agency or import or, by my count, more than three lines in a row.
It’s not so much a horror film from the monster’s perspective as a computer game from one. And not a modern computer game either, but one from the Nineties in which people disappear after you kill them and only say "Die!" or "Argghh!"
Now, I don’t believe – as has been suggested by some – that it’s an intentional right-wing battle-cry, the Joker as a poster incel for all the angry and dispossessed loner-loons out there (but hi! I’m sure you’ll come say hello on Twitter! How’s all the masturbation going?), because, well, that would be crediting Joker with at least some kind of intelligence. It’s not so much an absence of morality that it suffers from as a vacuum of thought. Imagine American Psycho from the perspective of a director who’s really into business cards and promotions and you start to appreciate the problem.
What enters that vacuum, then, is a sort of stumbled-upon nihilism, an accidental call-to-cray-cray, a whoops-I’ve-inceled-again dumb explosion of a film. A stupid person’s idea of a “dark” movie, a teenager’s idea of a good one.
Which brings us, neatly, on to the director Todd Phillips.
Phillips has been giving interviews patiently explaining to us lib-tards why he had to leave the world of comedy behind and go make incel propaganda – sorry, drama – instead.
“Go try and be funny nowadays with this woke culture,” Todd todded, adding, “because all the funny guys are like, ‘Fuck this shit, I don’t want to offend you.’”
Lol, he funny,” responded the director Taika Waititi on Twitter, who’s about to release a comedy in which he plays Hitler as the imaginary best friend of a boy in the Nazi youth.
Watching Joker, I couldn’t help thinking of something that, years ago, the showrunner Dan Harmon told me. This was back in 2006, before Harmon was the celebrated comic brain behind Community and Rick & Morty.
He was mostly known at the time as the cocreater of the website channel101.com, where members of the public could submit their digital shorts to be voted on, with the most successful staying on for extra episodes. A kind of X Factor for the comedy kids.
While some submissions were huge successes – one long-running series, House Of Cosbys, introduced Harmon to his future Rick & Morty cocreator, Justin Roiland – others were, to put it mildly, less so.
“There's a certain category we get from 15-year-old rich kids,” Harmon told me at the time, “where they run around doing rape jokes, shooting women in the pussy, being vaguely racist or eating shit.”
Kids, in other words, who’d been insulated from consequence and desensitised to violence and who think comedy and shock are one and the same. And maybe more simply: kids who think it’s funny just because they haven’t grown up yet.
I thought about that because if you ever wanted to know, if you ever wondered, what those kids might make if you gave them a $50 million budget, a decent cinematographer and a an Oscar-nominated actor to star, well, it would probably look something like Joker.
Yes, it’s beautiful to look at. And, sure, it’s a remarkable performance from one of the acting talents of his generation. But to give it five stars for that, to review it in a bubble and pretend the outside world doesn’t exist, is not just naive but dangerous. You may as well judge a snuff film by the work of the Steadicam.
And yet, the worst thing is Joker is so shallow it doesn’t deserve the attention. It really doesn’t! It’s shallow, it’s dumb, it’s gross, it’s goddamn garbage!
But then, so is radioactive waste. And Joker, you suspect, is going to have half-life.
Joker is out now.