Critic v. Critic: ‘Joker’

The 68 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating for Todd Phillips’ “Joker” doesn’t tell the whole story.

Nor does the film’s impressive box office tally, roughly $154 million stateside and counting, according to

JOKER - Final Trailer - Now Playing In Theaters

Audiences are deeply split on the film’s brutal take on Batman’s arch-nemesis. Some cheer the gritty urban plight which helped fuel his mania. Others insist the screenplay is as thin as any comic book page.

Barry Wurst, a HiT contributor and film critic for the Maui Times, is in the latter camp. He set up a tent and brewed a fresh cup of Joe there, too.

This critic hailed “Joker” as the best movie of the year.

That means it’s time for another installment of “Critic v. Critic: Joker Edition.” 

TOTO: “Joker” did the near-impossible for me. It lived up to the gargantuan hype. Even the film’s detractors note that Joaquin Phoenix is mesmerizing as Arthur Fleck, so let’s skip right past that element (unless you prefer to dig in?). I’ll start by cheering the film’s willingness to challenge audiences, to dredge up tough topics like media exploitation, mental illness and free will.

Scene after scene left me fascinated, scared and a little uncomfortable. How could society treat one man so poorly? Why did he cling to a stand-up career knowing he lacked the temperament to stay on stage without fits of inappropriate laughter? And could this personal disaster have been avoided with an irregular dose of kindness?

We keep hearing about mass murderers who leave red flags in their wake. “Joker” is the ultimate parade of red flags lining up for our inspection. It all left me … fascinated, and I’m eager to see it again.

So what went wrong for you?

todd phillips joaquin phoenix joker
Director Todd Phillips confers with star Joaquin Phoenix on the set of ‘Joker.’

WURST: Let’s start with Joaquin Phoenix, whose performance is remarkable, will likely be remembered at awards time and is, without a doubt, one of the most self-indulgent of the year. This is ACTING at its showiest and unsubtle.

Does it fit the character? Probably, though it allows Phoenix to do what Mickey Rourke and Eric Roberts did in “The Pope of Greenwich Village”: call bragging rights on who goes the furthest over the top.

Yes, Joaquin, we see your rib cage showing, hear your laughter for the 13th time and acknowledge that you are utterly in our face in every single, tiresome scene. Be sure to start writing that Oscar speech!

However, Phoenix played a nearly identical character in “The Master” seven years ago and Oscar ignored him for that milestone, so that could happen again.

The Master Official Teaser Trailer #1 - Paul Thomas Anderson Movie (2012) HD

It’s just as well that we’re celebrating Phoenix’s acting, which distracts from how limp, and unoriginal the screenplay is. Yes, co-writer/director Todd Phillips is doing Scorsese, except Phillips and his movie are in no way on the same level as Scorsese or his “The King of Comedy” and “Taxi Driver.”

Those films balanced the darkness with colorful supporting casts, clearly defined themes and a sense of humor (how odd, a movie about The Joker that is NEVER funny).

The subplot involving the love interest is awful, both in the initial scenes and in the groan-worthy big reveal. So is the Batman subplot, in which the screenplay introduces an intriguing idea, then quickly shies away from it. Like many late-90’s movies with hipster nihilism, the minute-to-minute rotten occurrences that plague Fleck make this predictable.

I was never uncomfortable, as I was all-too-aware of how the film was trying and failing to engage me with grim material. I like “dark” and “downbeat” but not when it comes so often, you only expect the worst (which is a perfect mindset to see this movie).

I never cared about Arthur Fleck. “Joker” rubs our faces in human misery and muck but always reinstates just how dangerous and unstable the central figure is. Norman Bates is, by comparison, far more human and sympathetic, though that’s partly because Anthony Perkins never gave the kind of howling-from-the-rafters turn Phoenix delivers here.

A Boy's Best Friend - Psycho (2/12) Movie CLIP (1960) HD

The trailer sold an ugly, unpleasant art movie, and that’s exactly what this is. I like that it’s the tonal opposite of every other 2019 comic book movie but, as a social commentary, portrait of a serial killer or even a post-modern comic book movie, there’s very little here.

TOTO: I couldn’t disagree with you more about Phoenix’s performance. It’s quiet, not scenery chewing. His grandiose moves come when he’s dancing, an odd array of shuffles that let him create in the only way he truly knows how. Even when he’s laughing uncontrollably, a tic brilliantly imagined for the film, you can see his pain and frustration seeping through. He cannot help himself, and the actor makes that point so heartbreakingly clear.

Plus, Arthur is so eager to play out his Momma’s template – you can make people laugh! – that he’s both pathetic and sympathetic.


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The film’s nihilism comes with a point. Just what is society’s role in creating a monster like Joker? Why do we call ourselves good and kind people while stepping over the Arthurs around us? Why would Robert De Niro’s talk show host character invite Arthur on his show if not to mock him all over again? That Hollywood exploitation is one of many meaty themes introduced here.

And even the rich vs. poor elements, one of Hollywood’s go-to tics, comes off as a small part of a larger, more engaging fabric.

I do agree the ‘romantic’ subplot is malnourished, and the ‘reveal’ moment should have been left out entirely. Still, it speaks to Arthur’s increasingly frayed sense of reality, which the director uses to juice the narrative at all the right moments.

Weren’t you eager to talk about the movie after it wrapped …or was that only to say how much you disliked it?

WURST: I appreciate your empathy for such a rotten guy, I really do. Yet, I must ask you, have you ever danced with the devil in the pale blue light? I always ask that of my prey…I just like the sound of it.

Christian, it’s The Joker we’re talking about! When Darth Vader murdered those lil’ Jedis, were you thinking how sad it is that he’s making Padme a single mother? This is The Joker! It might as well be the devil and, no thank you, Rolling Stones, I have no sympathy for the devil.

Society is not responsible for the creation of this monster, just as society is not “responsible” for making real monsters – you know what, let’s avoid real life and stick with reel life: the big bad art direction of late 20th century New York is not the culprit in making Arthur Fleck a killer.

Nor are the imbeciles who devoured Hannibal Lecter’s sister and gave him (to quote another band) an appetite for destruction. I can’t take Fleck’s plight to the bottom seriously, just as Todd Phillips didn’t: every scene is a contrivance, as something bad is always happening to Fleck and there is never a remote shot at redemption. The reel culprit for Fleck’s hardships: the screenplay!

Witnessing Fleck’s imaginary plea for love from De Niro’s talk show host (among the year’s most awkwardly staged scenes), I felt I was watching a scripted scene, not a genuine reflection of a damaged mind. Every side character, from the goons who serve as Fleck’s co-workers (complete with a degrading turn for Leigh Gill) to cinema’s worst social case worker, establish a conclusion that is never in doubt.

Fleck’s life sucks and, since he’s already a perverse cretin and a lousy birthday clown, he’s positively destined to become a super-villain. “Unbreakable” and the underrated “Glass” establish how personal choice and circumstances can alter this. So does “Taxi Driver,” the template for “Joker,” with the Jodie Foster and Cybil Shephard characters providing a contrast and ray of light into a dark existence.

Taxi Driver (6/8) Movie CLIP - Travis Wants to Help Iris (1976) HD

There was hope for Travis Bickle and he chose instead to dance with the devil in the pale blue light. Fleck, on the other hand, is creeper in training from scene one and it’s a single-minded script, devoid of genuine social commentary, that is all too happy to thrust him into hell.

Finally, to address your well worded question – would I call myself a good person and step over someone like Fleck? Absolutely! We’re not talking about a Norman Bates (who longs to be free of his demons), Anakin Skywalker (who knows what is right and chooses not to do it) or Hannibal Lecter (who tries to conceal how his crimes taste delicious).

In the world of “Joker,” Fleck’s moment of nirvana is to smear blood on his face and become the symbol of mayhem personified for his nihilistic minions. His contribution to society is murder and casual sadism.

Sure, its compelling to watch, but in no way am I rooting for this jerk!

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