Paying homage to 1970s American New Wave classics

Movie still from Joker starring Joaquin Phoenix.
Movie still from Joker starring Joaquin Phoenix.PHOTO: WARNER BROS

REVIEW / DRAMA

JOKER (NC16)

122 minutes/Opens today/ 2.5 stars

The story: It is the early 1980s in Gotham city and Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) makes a living as a clown for an agency that sends him to children's hospitals and store events. In spite of his good intentions, he faces frustration everywhere, dooming his chances of meeting his hero, talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Inspired by the DC Comics character Joker, the villain seen in Batman comics and films.

This is not a movie in its own right so much as a homage to movies from the 1970s. As an exercise in stylistic worship, it is decent. However, while it gets the cosmetics right, it is nowhere as tough, bleak or angry as the films that its makers admire so much. It just feels ordinary.

With the opening shots of a city torn apart by strikes and simmering with anger, it is clear that director Todd Phillips is looking to make his Taxi Driver (1976, and starring De Niro) or Dog Day Afternoon (1975), two films set in a New York City eating itself alive. Both are classics of the American New Wave.

Phillips likes the romantic squalor found in both films. But the director of the Hangover trilogy of comedies (2009 to 2013) reserves his greatest affection for the idea of urban hell as a crucible that burns away softness, turning victims into uber-men. It is a hyper-masculine notion that is in keeping with the Hangover stories, which are about men who find jokes and brotherhood in a world that they view as one large frat house.

Arthur is a blend of Angry Everyman and working-class hero, the bloke who breaks bad because, in a broken society, his gentleness is viewed as a character defect. He is tormented on all sides, by 99 percenters like himself and by the 1 per cent, represented by magnate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen).

This is where this film's ideology deviates from the movies it tries to emulate.

 

Taxi Driver or, more appropriately, The King Of Comedy (1985, starring De Niro as a comedian with a pathological case of hero worship), were portraits of delusional, wilfully violent persons seeking to wreak havoc on the city, rather than what Arthur is: a man who gives himself permission to be as rotten as the society to which he belongs, then finds himself held up as a symbol of the resistance. It is a narcissistic fantasy beloved of mass shooters and war criminals, not antiheroes.

That decision to make Arthur a reactive character rather than a proactively evil one is an understandable cop-out because, despite its Golden Lion win at the Venice Film Festival, this is still a major-studio comic-book movie. It is just a shame that Phoenix's acting, which fully deserves the buzz it has gotten, has been in service of a movie with a maxim that might grace a jacket worn by a wannabe bad-boy biker: Take advantage of my niceness and you will regret it.


Correction note: This article has been updated to reflect the correct running time for the movie. We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 03, 2019, with the headline 'Paying homage to 1970s American New Wave classics'. Print Edition | Subscribe