Marlow: And... we’re back. With the Oscars just two days away, and having already dissected how much of a disaster this awards season has been (our Iowa, as it were), its array of controversies (ranging from Weinstein and Epstein to an incredibly backwards lack of diversity), and the Academy Awards’ long, strange history of getting it so terribly wrong, it’s time to tackle far and away the most controversial film this terribly truncated awards season: Joker, the supervillain origin tale by The Hangover director Todd Phillips, who firmly believes his Hangover movies are too edgy for today’s “woke culture,” as he calls it (spoiler alert: they are not). The film has grossed well over $1 billion worldwide and is somehow up for the most Academy Awards of any film: 11, including Best Picture, Best Director (Phillips) and Best Actor (Joaquin Phoenix). Yes reader, you read that correctly: Todd Phillips was nominated for Best Director over Pedro Almodovar; and if that weren’t enough, the Scorsese knock-off received 11 Oscar noms to The Farewell’s zero. For shame.
Kevin: Where to even begin with this one? It’s an epically stupid movie. I guess that’s where to end. Should I start with its bafflingly dangerous and irresponsible depiction of mental illness? I’m not talking about the discourse about whether or not the film could incite violence—I assume we’ll touch on that later—I’m referring to the way it centers a narrative on a troubled loner who suffers from some sort of unspecified psychosis, whose acts of violence escalate as he stops taking his medication, his mental state deteriorates, and he seizes a narrative that the world has turned its back on him. When there’s already such stigma and misrepresentation about mental illness, the implied correlation between his mental state, medication, and extreme violence is outrageous.
Marlow: I’m gonna disagree with you here a bit. While I do concede that it’s a pretty stupid movie, especially when it comes to its class warfare messaging (more on that later), I read it more as how the system has failed Arthur Fleck—citywide austerity measures, owing to an ongoing garbage strike (yes, totally silly) and increased poverty and crime have led to the closure of Gotham’s mental health facilities, which in turn’s left Arthur without his safety net in the form of therapy, medication, you name it. The thing I took issue with is the way Arthur finds purpose, and empowerment, once he acquires a gun. It’s the depiction of a gun—which we’re led to believe he’s been randomly given by a coworker (though Arthur’s mind is scrambled, and his coworker claims that Arthur repeatedly badgered him for one)—as a clarifying tool for misfits that is troubling to me.
Kevin: Exactly. I’m not saying that there isn’t a thread there to follow about systems failing citizens—it’s that thread is left dangling in the wind while gunshots go off all around and bros applaud. What Arthur Fleck actually suffers from goes undiagnosed, as are his motivations when he does turn to violence. When his reactionary murders on a train spark a Gotham City movement that he becomes the face off, he tells Robert De Niro’s character he doesn’t believe in the political messaging of the movement, and in fact he doesn’t believe in anything.
Marlow: Right. Which seems like a total cop-out on the part of the film. I’m a nihilist. The entire press tour, both Phillips and Phoenix dodged any political questions, claiming that the film “isn’t political.” It’s nonsense, and further evidence that they don’t even know what they’re trying to communicate with the film.
Kevin: This all matters because of the way Fleck has been championed as a character, by those who feel like it’s an empathetic portrait of mental illness (it’s not), those who think it sends an admirable message about society’s cast-offs (it doesn’t, by Fleck’s own admission), or, most problematically, that the film is meaningful and “cool” because Fleck is an anti-hero for the cause he stands for (he stands for nothing). Mental illness is a serious issue, especially its connection to violence. Social injustice and stigmas are serious issues. This film says nothing coherent about any of these things, in fact contradicting its own script in the grand statement it thinks it’s making—and is being applauded by the film’s fans regardless.
Marlow: Hey, it’s been tough on those DC stans! I mean, these are the people who love its characters so much they’ve concocted elaborate conspiracy theories to defend its shitty films, from Batman v Superman to Justice League to Suicide Squad (the two female-directed DC flicks, Wonder Woman and Birds of Prey, are undoubtedly the DC factory’s best offerings).
Kevin: It's wild that the two comic-book movies to get Best Picture noms are Black Panther and... this. Woof.
Marlow: But can we talk about how ridiculous the class warfare themes are in Joker? That Thomas Wayne appearing on TV calling all poor people “clowns,” coupled with Joker shooting a few predatory finance bros, ignites a “Kill the Rich” movement in Gotham rife with people wearing clown masks? It’s more on the nose than Bane raising his arms skyward outside the New York Stock Exchange in a giant furry coat. And my God, don’t even get me started on that finance bro taunting Joker on the train by belting a Sondheim tune (“Send in the Clowns,” which…isn’t even about clowns!). We’re expected to believe finance bros intimidate strangers on the subway by…singing Sondheim? In what world!
Kevin: Poor Sondheim’s had a rough go of it this Oscar season.
Marlow: Being a-liiiive… [Adam Driver storms out of room.]
Kevin: I can even almost excuse the lunacy of that sequence as part of an effort to do something interesting with this character’s lore and the aesthetic with which it has been explored. But while there are certainly stylish shots to be found throughout the movie, all elevated stratospherically by an excellent score, it all amounts to something that isn’t so much stylized as it is trickery. It’s a film of scattered, provocatively-staged scenes—the bathroom mirror, the Bronx steps, the childhood flashback, the apartment murder, the talk show—but there’s not a lick of coherence between them, or even an understanding of what point of view they’re being shown in. Edgy? Pulp? Winking? Meta? It’s a directorial debacle, a swarm of clashing visual ideas and hollow topical commentary presented in smug pastiche. Apropos of nothing, yet perhaps everything, how is the fact that the now-iconic stair dance is performed to the Jock Jams soundtrack not the laughing stock of the year?!
Marlow: Oh God, so laughably bad! And by a convicted pedophile and child-pornography superfan, no less! Yuck. You’re right, it’s a collection of incendiary scenes heightened by a stunning score that… doesn’t amount to much at all. There are also troubling, Taxi Driver-esque racial undertones in the film—opening with Arthur getting roughed up by a group of Latino youths, scolded by a black woman on the bus, pointing a gun at black musicians on TV (an obvious nod to Travis Bickle), and becoming infatuated (and driven mad by) his black neighbor (Atlanta’s Zazie Beetz, who deserves better than this). As eagle-eyed viewers have pointed out online, the script appears to emphasize this, describing Arthur’s as “one of the few white faces” in his community. Problematic, to say the least!
Kevin: It’s the most frequent issue with the movie, the way it relies on gross and, especially in this case, derogatory film clichés to signal to its fanbase something purportedly profound.
Marlow: And “profound” it is not. But I’m going to (gasp) defend Joker—as I have before—against charges that the film can inspire real-life violence, a truly insane leap by a handful of prominent film writers and critics that is evidence of serious backwards thinking, and echoes the misreporting surrounding both Heath Ledger’s death (his Joker character had nothing to do with it, according to those closest to him), and the Aurora shooting (the shooter was not dressed up as or inspired by the Joker). There always seems to be irresponsible journalism surrounding this character for some reason, and I’m not sure why.
Kevin: I’m not going to take issue with anyone who makes a well-argued case against a film that glorifies violence as some sort of triumphant, earned vengeance for the “disenfranchised,” like it’s a birthright outlet for white male rage. Whether or not there is evidence of a direct correlation to real-life violence from a film like this, it’s still a despicable message and plot point to elevate in a film being released at this moment in time—and absolutely merits being called out.
Marlow: There isn’t any evidence, though! It’s a tired argument—movies cause real-world violence—that’s been made since time immemorial. Just look at Asia. They’ve got some of the most violent, shoot-‘em-up movies around and no gun violence because they have the common sense (that we severely lack) to enact strict gun-control laws. Anyway, I’ll also add that Joaquin Phoenix is one of our finest actors and turns in a deliciously creepy (if at times uneven) performance. He deserved to win for The Master but I wouldn’t be too annoyed if he won for this one.
Kevin: It is a woefully uneven performance, but one that clearly was very effortful so I guess, sure, it’s not entirely maddening that Phoenix, who is so much better in so many other films, will finally win an Oscar and I’ll never have to think about this movie again.