The correct Martin Scorsese analog to Joker is not Taxi Driver but The Last Temptation of Christ—an aggressive deconstruction of a widely-known character prone to constant media re-imaginings. In both films, we are asked to believe that our squirrelly weirdo protagonist will ultimately become the larger-than-life figure we know so well. Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix largely succeed in creating something more cinema than theme park, though the Last Temptation comparison ends there.
Still, there’s a lot to like about Joker. It’s very lovingly shot, a rich portrayal of 1970s pseudo–New York. And of course it stars one of the most interesting actors working in Hollywood today, Joaquin Phoenix. His portrayal of Arthur Fleck as The Man Who Would Be Clown Prince is jittery and unstable and magnetic in the way that Phoenix often is. He lifts up what is in the bare facts a run of the mill loser hero, a less empathetic Peter Parker. (Though the uncontrollable Gollum laughing fits are particularly inspired.)
In fact, Fleck is compelling enough that the Batman IP seems unnecessary, the equivalent of celebrity casting. Sure, it puts asses in seats but it’s basically the sugar that helps the medicine of a period piece character study go down. You could just as well swap out the proper nouns and make Carnival, a movie about a troubled clown in New York who has sputtering violent episodes. It probably wouldn’t make any money, but the movie would as good or better, a beautifully grimy 1970s throwback film of violence and resentment. But the promised metamorphosis of Fleck into Joker is aborted, and that’s where everything falls apart.
Whereas Scorsese succeeds in transforming his frayed Willem Dafoe Jesus into the Biblical Christ, Phillips’ character never believably becomes the Joker we might recognize. He’s largely the same squirrelly weirdo by the film’s conclusion. Part of this is down to Phoenix’s portrayal, which never quite grows up. I’ve long held Walk the Line against Phoenix for playing the legendary Johnny Cash as a simpering child, right up to the unconvincing marriage proposal of the film’s conclusion. There’s only a brief period when you glimpse the confident, swaggering Cash of pop imagination (when he assumes the full black and shades and sets his sights on the infamous prison concert).
Similarly, the soft-spoken Arthur Fleck only briefly gives way to the Joker persona, and only in the cinematic shots of his first appearance in the full suit and makeup. By the climax, he’s the same tearful mama’s boy as he was at the outset, and he spits the film’s thesis like a bullied child having a panic attack: “What do you get when you cross a mentally-ill loner with a system that abandons him and treats him like trash? You get what you fucking deserve!” To be fair to Phoenix, there’s no way to deliver this mall goth ass “I laugh at you because you’re all the same” line that wouldn’t be cringe.
And really, it’s clear that Phillips has no clear idea how to bridge the gap between Fleck and Joker narratively. Fleck does (implausibly) become the face of a massive anarchic uprising, but entirely by accident— flashes of baby Anakin Skywalker goofing his way into blowing up The Phantom Menace‘s bargain Death Star. There’s no connective tissue that believably pits Joker’s charisma or drive at its center or suggests he could go on to lead even a small group of goons. Truth be told, the uprising itself is poorly articulated, told almost entirely through television soundbites and newspaper headlines.
So as enjoyable as the ride may be, as a Becoming movie, it hinges heavily on its destination. Once you get there, the ride seems somewhat less worthwhile.
Will Joker be the next Taxi Driver? Is it too dangerous to screen? These are two separate questions, because whatever responsibility Scorsese holds for John Hinckley Jr’s actions, the man shot Ronald Reagan and spurred serious gun control legislation, Two Good Outcomes.
Obviously, we live under the dark specter of mass shootings, but Phillips doesn’t seem as likely to inspire incels as Ben Shapiro or PragerU, or even The Dark Knight for that matter. His Joker is a run-of-the-mill loser with neither the specificity or charisma of anti-heroes like Tyler Durden or incel king Travis Bickle. Bickle was fueled by real, terrifying sexual frustration and alienation—and he carried a cool retractable pistol. Joker is a goddamn Batman villain and doesn’t have a single gadget. His only source of power is A Gun he borrowed from a friend. Pathetic.