Why so stupid: how Joker is too juvenile to be provocative | Film

There’s been an air of tense caution surrounding the upcoming release of Todd Phillips’ new film Joker, an apprehension eerily recalling the evacuation of Gotham following the clown criminal’s terrorist threats in The Dark Knight. Maybe it’s due to false memories of the Aurora shooter dressing up as the Joker (a bit of apocrypha since disproven) before opening fire on a screening of Christopher Nolan’s take on the character in 2008, or maybe it’s due to the subject matter of a man on the edge finally snapping and going on a spree. Most likely due to a combination of the two, large swaths of the public share in a faint unease that the nationwide premiere may provide occasion for an act of mass violence.

The concern has been floated from the earliest rounds of press, when Joaquin Phoenix stormed out of an interview with the Telegraph after the reporter asked if the film “might perversely end up inspiring” fringe types to bring about “potentially tragic results”. The survivors of the tragedy in Colorado penned a joint letter to Warner Brothers urging the studio to consider the safety of their audiences, and the American military issued a warning to troops about possible emergencies. A sizable legion of loyalist trolls has formed to flood the Twitter mentions of any journalist speaking out against the still to-be-released film with bile. It is, as Phoenix’s Joker-to-be Arthur Fleck muses in the film’s opening minutes, getting crazier out there.

This conversation has now given way to the adjacent and far more tiresome conversation-about-the-conversation, as critics and self-appointed cultural watchdogs weigh in on whether all the alarm has been misplaced or well-founded. And now my time has come to officially be part of the problem, if only to add my two cents that irrespective of opinion, we’ve all played right into Phillips’ hands.

This is a prefab sort of controversy, its talking points hardwired directly into a text all too eager to provoke. My initial review from Joker’s gala premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival levied the charge of being too juvenile and shallow to successfully deliver on its attempts to shock. The effort’s still there, however; while not particularly effectively, Phillips does his darnedest to glorify the post-breakdown Fleck, a man who gains everything only once he has nothing left to lose. While it has been emphatically established that Joker is not a conventional superhero picture, cinematographer Lawrence Sher still drops in the classic slow-mo walk closely identified with the genre, as a facepainted Fleck basks in his own power with each stride. The film wants to leave the question of its judgment on Joker tantalizingly unresolved, allowing enough room for plausible deniability of any toxic influence even as it puts a bad example on a pedestal.

But even if the work itself has been built on a bedrock of irresponsibility, that doesn’t imbue it with the control over human behavior we’ve all come to fear. Movies don’t cause people to commit mass shootings in the same way that video games or heavy metal music don’t suddenly make killers out of ordinary teens. These things may give unstable personalities a channel through which they can divert their pre-existing rage and resentment, but even in the worst case, the impulse to do harm has begun far before the opening credits roll.

This is not to minimize the concerns of the Aurora letter, or anyone fearful of their safety in shared spaces, all of whom have been given plenty of cause for their worry by headlines over the past decade. But ascribing that concern to the influence of the film means embracing a narrative that the promotional team has peddled since the earliest days of production, in which the exploits of a madman are just too daringly twisted for mainstream audiences. This may be the most cynical aspect of a movie about cynicism – how Phillips made the early can’t-lose bet of framing his latest feature as a subversive, formidable challenge to our sensibilities, when engaging with the film at all means proving him right.

Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from Joker.

Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from Joker. Photograph: Niko Tavernise/AP

In a recent interview with the Associated Press, Phillips expressed frustration with the scrutiny his film has received on all sides, saying, “The one that bugs me more is the toxic white male thing when you go, ‘Oh, I just saw John Wick 3.’ He’s a white male who kills 300 people and everybody’s laughing and hooting and hollering. Why does this movie get held to different standards? It honestly doesn’t make sense to me.” Setting aside the fact that John Wick is in fact not a white male, this soundbite packs three different rhetorical fallacies – false equivalency, misrepresentation of a premise, and garden-variety whataboutism – into approximately 15 seconds of audio.

This is, no other word for it, Trump-speak. His clumsy circumlocution reflects a desire to wriggle out from answering for the consequences of one’s own choices, a basic inability to make a defense masquerading as a defense. Phillips wishes to enjoy the notoriety of a button-pusher without taking the heat, to make a movie about morality without discussion of morals, to be provocative without answering the question of what’s being provoked. He’d like to have it both ways, confronting his viewers with stark truths and then demurring all who-me once it’s time to reckon with their implications. In actuality, the film can’t manage either, too immature to jolt and too simplistic about its own rotten side to exonerate itself. It won’t single-handedly make the world a more violent place – just a slightly uglier, more unpleasant one.

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