I'm convinced director Todd Philips wanted to do a remake of something Scorsese, knew nobody would give him the rights to anything, so instead repackaged the idea as Joker. This movie smacks of late 70s, early 80s white male angst which is not a bad thing in itself, but it does not seem to have a point. "Rich people are bad, and society doesn't care about the individual" is fine except when the hero coming up is both rich and an individual circumventing society to fight crime. You could argue this movie says nothing about Batman, except when it shows the origin of Batman. More on that in the notes. The point Phillips might have been trying to make is the contradictions of modern life, but he sets the movie thirty years ago and muddles the point with an unreliable narrator. Yes, we are still dealing with the same economic problems, but the answer is not a mentally unstable white guy shooting people. Even as a character study the movie fails because of the unreliable narrator. We can't learn about a character if we can't trust what we are seeing, unless the point is that he is unknowable and that falls apart because the first half of the movie is fairly trustworthy. In the end, if this movie gets people to revisit King of Comedy, Taxi Driver, and Mean Streets, then making it will have been worth it. Otherwise, beyond Joaquin Phoenix's solid performance, the library calls this a rental.
Here's my notes with commentary, beware spoilers:
Right off the bat we learn that Arthur Fleck is mentally ill. He visits a psychiatrist and has been previously institutionalized. As this is a Joker story, so be it, but what's the harder fall: someone who thought they were on steady ground or the guy already falling?
Rich family fantasy
Watching tv with his mom, Fleck goes into a fantasy life where all his dreams come true. We all have this, but Fleck's goes a little far with Robert De Niro bringing him into the fold. It's well done and sets up the later unreliableness.
I was prepared to write that kids who just beat guys up don't exist, but then I remembered Kids (1995) and a recent story about some kids shooting a photographer after they asked him to take their picture. Both of those examples have provocations, but still, kids are bastards.
Of course he has creepy interactions with his cute neighbor. This might be the best part of the movie, especially the reveal, except it's telegraphed heavily.
Gun in kids hospital
This scene took away all my caring about Arthur Fleck as a person. He's mentally ill, sure. He was given a revolver by a coworker to protect himself, sure. But then he brings the weapon into a children's hospital and has it unsecured. This is stupid and horrible and creates an atmosphere where right off the bat this asshole has no sense of right or wrong. If that's the case then why should we care if he loses his soul, especially if he never had one.
American Horror Story
The "clown gets fired because other clowns throw him under the bus" storyline comes right out of the TV show's Freak Show season. Is it just that all clowns are backstabbing bastards?
Arthur, newly fired, stops a woman being assaulted with his own brand of crazy. The jerks who beat him up are some rich bros, so you do kinda cheer when he shoots the first one. Then he gets the second one and that's enough. Then he hunts the third and oh, there's Mr. J.
After doing some murder, Fleck goes back home and does some interpretive dance. It looked like Tai Chi to me at the time. I wondered if there would be a martial arts component, but no, dude just likes to dance.
Shooting and dancing gets a guy a rock hard erection, so he goes to the neighbor he shared a moment with and bangs her silly. Or so we think.
First time standup
I haven't talked a lot about Fleck's laughing problem. When he gets nervous or upset, instead of crying he laughs. It's a real disorder and well done here. That Fleck knows of this, yet wants to be a stand up comic, well… It turns out poorly.
Fleck's mom has been writing to the Wayne family saying Thomas Wayne will support them if only he knew what shape they were in. She worked for them; he's a good man. When she goes into the hospital, Fleck reads the letters and… Well, at least she thinks he's Wayne's son, which is a hat on an even crazier hat.
Bruce Wayne gate magic
Now that Fleck is convinced Wayne is his daddy, he goes to visit the family mansion. He does some magic tricks for the young billionaire, luring him to the gate of the estate. This is one of the scenes that causes pause. Does it happen? Because what billionaire running for public office would let his kid play ten feet from the gate on a giant ass estate. If it is fake, however, why does it end with Alfred coming?
Alfred push buttons
Alfred then pushes all the buttons. Again, if this is a dream or part of his psychosis, why does Alfred say his mom was crazy? Why does he tell Fleck about the sanitarium where his mother was held? Was that all made up? It's okay to make rules for a crazy person in a narrative, but the narrative has to make sense.
Where's her kid?
Back in the hospital, one of the first clues that Fleck is making up whole "girlfriend" thing: where's her kid? Even then thinking about sexy time, where was the kid? Fleck only thinks about what he wants and discards the rest, showing no more than when he imagines his neighbor without her child. Also, I had to look up her name: Sophie. The movie does not say it that much.
No Bathroom Attendant
Arthur sneaks into a big event to confront his daddy, Wayne. One more clue that this might be fake: what rich person event doesn't have a dude in the bathroom? Guy to replenish the mints and soap and stuff. Rich people love that shit.
Fight Club Beating
Here's a reverse of Fight Club for once, with the rich guy beating the hell out of the poor guy. Thomas Wayne gets Fleck on the floor pretty quick. It's kinda nice.
Refrigerator to Hospital
Dude climbs in a refrigerator. A weird, eerie scene some have theorized cuts the narrative between "this happened" and "this didn't," but so much broken shit has happened that I reject that theory.
Sneaks into a hospital and gets his papers. Not only is his mom cray-cray, but he's adopted. Not only is he adopted, but he was abused. Not only was he abused, but he had a ton of head trauma. Tower of hats here to explain a character best used when nothing is explained.
Yup, she crazy
He confronts his mom who says Wayne is totally her baby daddy. Then she starts spouting off things that prove she can't be trusted. She lied, so...
She has to die. This is pretty damn effective. He's a broken person at this point and killing the one person he trusted throws him heavy over the edge. I wish more had been done with this, as it seems he just goes home.
Planned Suicide, Taxi Driver
We have a plan to go on television and provide a show. It's a good one, but one he has to practice. If you didn't think this movie was not taken literally from Taxi Driver then here's one of the most famous scenes in cinema repeated.
Some friends stop by to give their condolences. It's a great gesture, one he prepares for by slipping some scissors in his pocket before answering the door. The murder is violent and quick, teased just the right way. This movie does not glorify violence, using it effectively.
Chain and let's go
This is the best part of the movie. I really wish the rest of the narrative had been along these lines, a dark, dark comedy. So after the murder of the clown who gave him the gun, Arthur (getting close to Joker) tells the little person he can go. He jumps at the guy but is kidding. Except the guy can't reach the safety chain on the door. He has to ask Arthur to let him out. Arthur gets up, leans over and kisses the guy on the forehead and lets him go. I can almost give the whole movie a pass for how dark, tense, and funny this scene is. This is the first of two scenes that I can say feels like the Joker from the comics.
Rock and Roll dance - What's he dancing to?
I often ask myself this question when a non-musical movie character breaks out into dance, but here it fits: What music does Arthur hear as he dances down the steps? We hear Gary Glitter's Rock and Roll, Part 2, the song of high school football all over, but he's not dancing to that at all. Plus, where the fuck did he get the suit? More mindlessness or what?
Police subway riot
Yup. The unrest decides to go right into riot while police chase Arthur into the subway. I got nothing on this entire subplot. It feels tacked on.
The entire section with Arthur backstage before going out is full of tension. It's a good, quiet moment that you know will break out into madness eventually. Another great scene.
John Waters Turn
Have any of you seen John Waters' Cecile B. Demented? You should. It's along the same lines and way more punk rock than this movie.
You get what you deserve
It's the punctuation line for the whole movie. But does anyone deserve being shot to the face? No, of course not. Is it cathartic? No? For this weird ass character arch it is, for a hot moment, then we're left with "this is an asshole. Fuck this guy." At least we should be.
Ledger's police ride
If you don't see the parallels to Heath Ledger riding in the cop car in full makeup to this movie, then I got nothing.
Sudden followers crash
How did they know he was being driven out in that car? Why hit him there? Are these his followers or just random Joker-ized citizens attacking cops? I don't need definitive proof, but I do need to care about any of this.
I've seen the Waynes and Uncle Ben get killed more than I've seen of them being alive. Unless someone rewrites it to where they were attacking the mugger Purge-style, I don't care.
Man, what the fuck was up with the dude with the wicker chair a guy is holding up while Joker stands on the police car? Am I the only one that saw that shit? I feel crazy.
I found this bit super creepy and good. If not for the Wicker Man I just talked about, the scene may have had more impact.
This is the second real Joker scene in the movie. He's talking to his psychiatrist at Arkham, walks out, and there's bloody footprints on every step. Then he's running from orderlies. Just everything about this is subtle and a little funny and a lot dark. It's a great ending to a mediocre movie.