Joaquin Phoenix’s killer performance aside, in terms of films, ‘Joker’ is as generic as they come. Todd Phillips (the film’s director, previously famed for ‘The Hangover’ franchise) might have tried to invent a new kind of anti-hero, but he miserably failed. And it’s because he relied on Arthur Fleck’s mental illness to do so. Warning: spoilers ahead.
His approach to the matter was vague and filled with one too many clichés for a film released amidst a socio-political climate muddled by mass shootings and an international debate surrounding their links to mental health.
Stripped to its most basic elements: Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck beautifully, a tormented loser with dreams to be a comedian, who only manages to find work as a clown. He lives with his mother Penny in a run-down building and has a crush on his neighbour.
He suffered childhood abuse that may or may not have left him with a neurological condition that makes him burst into fits of uncontrollable laughter, which is illustrated through a laminated card he hands over to anyone facing one of his outbursts. And he’s obsessed with Murray, a late-night talk show host played by Robert De Niro, as exhibited through Fleck’s delusions of himself on the show played out in his apartment.
Fleck is beaten up a few times throughout the film’s run. He scribbles jokes in a notebook alongside muttered thoughts about his mental health (complete with misspelled words). All of this culminating into Fleck’s evolution as a violent Joker. By the end of the film, he becomes a full-fledged anti-hero—backed by a ‘Kill the Rich’ movement that rejects the upper class.
Upon its release, the film was quickly entrapped in controversy. It fell prey to critics and to the public, many of whom argued that the film romanticizes violence (a dangerous undertaking considering the rise of mass shootings in the US).
The argument that the film glorifies violence and fuels white supremacy are both partially valid. The film clearly places the Joker on a moralistic see-saw with mental illness on one end and violence on the other. But I argue that Joker heavily lacked in nuance. And it’s this failure that makes the film struggle to genuinely hold a mirror up to society. Put simply, Arthur Fleck is just a lazy characterization of a mentally ill person, and to add insult to injury, one with a cliché cigarette that never leaves his mouth.
Fleck’s vague, undefined mental illness is what led the film to fall flat. The film would have been far better off if Phillips had not relied on generic, cliché ideas of mental illness to formulate his character. In the end, it wound up seemingly exploitative, leaving both himself and his film tangled in controversy.