Why so serious? is the question you want to ask the embattled Arthur Fleck in Todd Phillips’ deadly serious origin story of the clown prince of Gotham. Supposed to be a spiritual successor to Martin Scorsese’s neo-noir Taxi Driver (1976) and his satirical The King of Comedy (1983), Joker unfortunately tries too hard.
An emaciated Joaquin Phoenix (why did he lose 22 kilograms for the role?) plays the tragic hero, Fleck, a failed stand-up comic, who decides to get back at all who have been mean to him (and that is everyone) with a gun. In the final count, Joker is underwhelming, derivative and rather shallow.
Robert De Niro as the unctuous talk show host, Murray Franklin, in Joker is yet another clumsy effort to remind all of Joker’s impeccable pedigree — De Niro acted in both Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. As Peter Bradshaw writes in The Guardian , “at various moments it’s a bit like The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver , only not as good.”
Taxi Driver tells the story of 26-year-old Travis Bickle, a troubled Viet vet, who drives a taxi to fight his chronic insomnia. Travis’ “Are you talking to me?” monologue with its coda of ‘there is no one else here’ achingly captures his loneliness and desperate desire to belong. As he realises he cannot assimilate, no matter how much he tries to get “organizized”, he hurtles down a path of violence.
Joker riffs off that feeling of identity and isolation albeit clumsily. Fleck also makes notes in his diary about being a person, “For my whole life, I didn't know if I even really existed” and “I hope my death makes more cents than my life” among others. Fleck finds his purpose in violence unlike poor Rupert Pupkin from The King of Comedy who feels it is better to be “king for a day than schmuck for life".
Both Travis and Rupert are unreliable narrators and Scorsese has deliberately left both movies open ended. Does Travis save Iris? Is he hailed as a hero? Does Rupert rock the show? Does he become a successful comic? Is it real or fantasy? With Scorsese wanting to make the fantasy more real than reality, he leaves it to the viewer to make up their minds on what is real and what is not.
Considering Joker is an origin story of a comic book character, already one step away from reality, the film is uncharacteristically burdened by reality — in terms of the period detail, cinematography and music. And then as the many think pieces deconstructing the ending posit, does Joker take place in Fleck’s head considering he is in Arkham asylum with dark and not green hair?
In the “making of” section of The King of Comedy , Scorsese draws parallels between Travis and Rupert. “ Taxi Driver . Travis. Rupert. The isolated person. Is Rupert more violent than Travis? Maybe.”
Travis is so obviously alienated that you would naturally approach him with caution. Not so Rupert, who looks harmless but then so did Norman Bates who as we all know “wouldn't even hurt a fly".
It is difficult to imagine the deeply-disturbed Fleck as the anarchy-loving prankster of Batman. If the film used Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke as a springboard, it only kept the engineer’s failed attempt at stand-up comedy — doing away with vat of chemical waste and Batman. The graphic novel is also open ended — Batman extends a hand in friendship to the Joker and the two share a joke.
By making Joker relentlessly bleak, tempered with irresponsible violence, Philips ends up alienating the viewer, thereby missing an opportunity to create a fascinating portrait of life on the edge.