Joker: A Review

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 7.236% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

There’s been a lot of critical frothing about how JOKER is the first superhero movie that’s worthy of an Oscar. So let me say this:

JOKER is what an Oscar movie looks like to people who haven’t seen a lot of Oscar movies. It’s mirroring the superficial aspects of much better films, but without the underlying philosophies that made them actually resonant. So what you get is a pastiche of other, more interesting, movies, held together by one amazing performance from Joaquin Phoenix.

There’s also been a lot of critical frothing about how JOKER is an incel’s paradise, designed to make sad rejected men feel vindicated when they lash out at society. So let me also say this:

JOKER is not really interesting enough to launch a movement like that. If you think of FIGHT CLUB, remember all the interesting philosophical questions about what it meant to be a man in this modern age and how nihilism wasn’t quite the answer but neither was faith?

Well, JOKER doesn’t have that.

Remember how TAXI DRIVER indicated that Travis Bickle was an alienated loner, but also looked insightfully into the ways he manufactured his own loneliness and in fact played into the idea that maybe being the savior of women wasn’t entirely a selfless act?

Well, JOKER doesn’t have that either.

Now, all that sounds like I hated this movie – and I didn’t! It was well worth my AMC Moviepass money, and I had a good time in the theater. My advice is that you go see it!

But JOKER has been blown up to be all sorts of interesting things that it’s not actually interested in being.

Because JOKER is, at its heart, a comic-book movie. It exists in an absurd cartoon world where, in the course of literally three days, two entirely different men decide to beat the shit out of a random clown. It exists in a world where a guy shoots three people on a train and the newspapers thunder headlines of, “SHOOTING RICH ASSHOLES: A NEW TREND?” because the plot demands it.

If you’ve ever seen any of the PLANET OF THE APES movies, you know where literally every character in the film is a completely vindictive asshole, with each supporting character’s entire goal is to grind down the protagonists’ lives until they finally snap?

Well, that’s JOKER.

It’s a big, sloppy soap opera of a movie, and that’s absolutely great, but the Oscar movies it’s trying to emulate usually have one other aspect that JOKER purposefully ignores:

A philosophy.

And Oscar films love a little philosophy.

A more interesting film – and mind you, JOKER is pretty interesting as it is – would have made some judgments about baby Joker; whether people were in some way right to reject him, or whether society itself is designed to hinder some sorts of people and help others. It might have asked how a real-life Joker comes to be, and as such it might have been either sympathetic to the incel movement (don’t be) or deconstructing the idea of it, or just looking at what a nice white dude can get away with.

JOKER… isn’t any of that. Joaquin Phoenix has said specifically he didn’t want anyone to understand or sympathize with Joker, he wanted him to be something that no psychiatrist could diagnose, and as such the film is oddly hands-off in asking the question, “Is this guy justified?” It basically rains shit down on the Joker in an entirely predictable fashion where if you ask, “What would make this guy the most miserable?”, you can call every beat of the plot.

Which isn’t to say that it might not launch its own movement if it gets popular enough; hell, THE MATRIX has shown that even with an explicit philosophy, you show a movie to enough people and they’ll start seeing things that aren’t really there (cough cough Red Pill man-movement centered around a film made by two trans people transmuting their experiences into science fiction). JOKER might well honestly create something, but that won’t be so much the movie as aimless folks looking for any handy movement to latch on to.

What I suspect we’ll get are a lot of edgelords in cosplay, which means we’ll see a reduction in the number of Rorschach masks sold this Halloween.

But JOKER is like an Oscar movie in one very specific way: there is a brand of Oscar movie, at least one per year, that features an amazing actor’s performance housed in a pretty mediocre movie. If you every watched Philip Seymour Hoffman in CAPOTE, he absolutely blazed every moment of the screen nailing becoming someone else entirely, a masterwork of actor’s skills.

The plot? Predictable. The directing? Mediocre. But you come for the acting and don’t expect much else, and you’ll be okay.

JOKER is kind of like CAPOTE in that Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is every bit as good as people say, and watching him transform himself into the unknowable is well worth the price of admission. And the directing is quite good at times, coming alive at the correct moments of violence.

But one of my prime moments of nerddom is that I saw THE DARK KNIGHT with Neil Gaiman on opening night (along with the other 17 members of my Clarion class). And he came out frowning and said, “I’m not sure if I watched a magnificent movie or just a magnificent performance.”

JOKER is a magnificent performance. Go see it for the one-man show. But when it falls way short of winning the Best Picture Oscar this year, don’t be surprised.


  1. Anonymous Alex
    Oct 5, 2019

    OK, so this has nothing to do with the movie or your review, but I had to put it somewhere and the most recent post seemed as good a choice as any.

    For the second time now I’ve had a period of time when I couldn’t submit comments, getting only a mysterious error message about an invalid security token. After a while, it (obviously) stopped.

    Not sure what the deal is or what (if anything) is to be done, but I wanted to at least say something so if it ever becomes unfixable, nobody will be wondering what happened to me.


    • Anonymous Alex
      Oct 5, 2019

      N.B. Might it have something to do with my trying to use the HTML trademark code (ampersand trade semicolon)?


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