Joker won’t chuckle its way into theaters for over a month, but the DC Comics movie premiered this weekend at the Venice Film Festival to mixed reviews an an eight-minute standing ovation. We won’t have a chance to be scared silly by Joaquin Phoenix’s take on the clown prince of crime until October 4, but in the meantime, here’s what the critics are saying, straight from Venice, Italy.
IndieWire: A bold new movie that spells doom for Hollywood.
IndieWire really liked Joker, but somehow hated it just as much. This opening paragraph kind of says it all:
Todd Phillips’ Joker is unquestionably the boldest reinvention of “superhero” cinema since The Dark Knight; a true original that’s sure to be remembered as one of the most transgressive studio blockbusters of the 21st Century. It’s also a toxic rallying cry for self-pitying incels, and a hyper-familiar origin story so indebted to Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy that Martin Scorsese probably deserves an executive producer credit. It’s possessed by the kind of provocative spirit that’s seldom found in any sort of mainstream entertainment, but also directed by a glorified edgelord who lacks the discipline or nuance to responsibly handle such hazardous material, and who reliably takes the coward’s way out of the narrative’s most critical moments.
The review also offers a nice synopsis of a key Joker scene that sends Phoenix’s character (Arthur Fleck) on his path from a failed clown to a comic book villain:
Arthur doesn’t hit bottom until three drunken finance bros attack him on the subway, and he kills them in self-defense. Well, he kills some of them in self-defense. The next thing he knows, the news is full of breathless reports about an unidentified clown murdering some up-and-coming employees of Wayne Enterprises, and the tension between Gotham’s haves and its have-nots begins to boil over. The city needs to be saved, but Bruce Wayne is still just a child. Someone else will have to step up.
IndieWire also makes a compelling argument that Joker is actually pretty mediocre and only getting this much attention because it’s connection to the superhero movie machine. Assuming that’s true, we could be looking at a future film industry where the Oscar winners are nothing more that half-baked comic book stories with the trapping of serious cinema:
It’s also the worst-case scenario for the rest of the film world, as it points towards a grim future in which the inmates have taken over the asylum, and even the most repulsive of mid-budget character studies can be massive hits (and Oscar contenders) so long as they’re at least tangentially related to some popular intellectual property. The next “Lost in Translation” will be about Black Widow and Howard Stark spending a weekend together at a Sokovia hotel.
That last bit might be a bit overblown, but if Joker somehow does win the Oscar for Best Picture it may be time to wonder just how far this trend can go.
io9: “A solid, well-made film that, ultimately, has a bit of an identity crisis.”
io9 makes a similar argument about the unevenness of director Todd Phillips’ (The Hangover) first “serious” film. However, the review also notes that Phoenix gives a world-class performance (not that we expected anything less):
Undoubtedly, the highlight of the film is Phoenix’s performance, which includes one of the best physical and mental transformations he’s done in his illustrious career.
Joker’s biggest flaw, however, is that in a movie full of ideas it never takes a strong stand.
Phillips doesn’t tip his hand one way or the other, leaving that sentiment almost entirely up to the audience, which in this day and age, is almost irresponsible.
Considering how the film seems to flirt with some of the ideas shared among the scarier, alt-right infested corners of the internet, maybe it would have worth been coming out firmly against the kind of civilization-burning violence that the Joker really stands for.
Nerdist: The next Logan is here.
“Despite all my cynicism and trepidation, I am pleased to report that this movie is really, really good,” Nerdist reports, later adding that it’s “one of the most unexpected and rewarding comic book movies since Logan.”
This Joker does offer an intriguing look at the movie’s version of 1970s Gotham City, along with its unorthodox take on Thomas Wayne (Batman’s dad) as a Trump-inspired villain:
The world of Joker’s Gotham City is a dilapidated, hostile place where uncomfortable proximity breeds friction, frayed nerves, and tension so thick you could cut it with a knife. Wracked by economic malaise, much like New York City leading up to the 1977 blackout, Gotham is a powder keg in search of a match. Every day the situation is exacerbated by wealth inequality and privilege—personified by Thomas Wayne (played to sneering perfection by Brett Cullen) and his Wall Street cronies.
Time did not like this movie.
An outlier among other reviews, Time offered a harsh criticism of Joker as a lesser Dark Knight with nothing much to offer.
But the aggressive terribleness of his performance isn’t completely his fault. (He has often been, and generally remains, a superb actor. Just not here.)
Phillips may want us to think he’s giving us a movie all about the emptiness of our culture, but really, he’s just offering a prime example of it.
Ultimately, the argument here seems to be that Joker is less of a movie and more of a play at memedom:
Joker — which was written by Phillips and Scott Silver — doesn’t have a plot; it’s more like a bunch of reaction GIFs strung together. When Arthur gets fired from his clown job, he struts by the time-clock, deadpans, “Oh no, I forgot to punch out” and then, wait for it, socks it so hard it dangles from the wall. Make a note of the moment, because you’ll be seeing it a lot in your Twitter and Facebook feeds.
Can a movie be good and also inspire memes? The answer is, of course, yes. That doesn’t mean Joker is any good (though most reviews say it is), but at least we know the memes will be fun.