CONTAINS HUGE SPOILERS AND CONFUSION
Because yes, I am confused. Usually I come out of the cinema and I pretty much know what I thought of the film: liked it, hated it, but on the other hand... Yet here's one of the year's major releases, from a major studio and a major lead actor, in Hollywood's prevalent genre, and suddenly I don't entirely know what to make of it. I'm suddenly not even sure what it is - drama, comedy, character piece, satire, social comment, thriller - let alone whether I like it, let alone whether I'm even supposed to like it. I'm wary of it. I don't trust it. I don't trust it because I don't trust the mind behind it.
The joker of Joker isn't Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix, terrific), childhood abuse victim, struggling standup comedian and rent-a-clown on whom life dumps mightily every chance it gets. He loses his job, he loses his therapist, his mother is difficult to connect with, he's on seven kinds of medication, he has only the most tenuous of friendships with some of his former workmates and possibly the single mother down the hall in his rundown apartment block. Everything is horrible, the city is falling apart. Will he cope or will he snap? Is comedy his way out? Is he even funny? Then, in full clown makeup, he kills three Wall Street scumbags on the late train and becomes a Death Wish folk hero figurehead to the mad-as-hell-and-not-going-to-take-it-any-more public backlash against the one per cent...
No, the joker is actually director and co-writer Todd Phillips himself. Just before release, he tweeted nonsensically about his move away from comedies (well, Hangover movies anyway; I suppose that's what they are technically) because Woke Culture means that comedians can't say anything at all these days. It's political correctness gone sane. A man who sucks at comedy makes a film about a man who sucks at comedy - notably we don't see much of Arthur Fleck's act because that would give the game away too early as to whether he is actually any good or not, and that requires a standard of scriptwriting that can differentiate between "good" and "bad" comedy (see the recent Late Night, where the script manages a clear contrast between smart, intelligent comedy and third-rate "adult" standup). And when he gets onto live TV, in Joker character, his first gag is a bad-taste anti-joke that kills the show stone dead. Phillips' own bad-taste anti-joke is the use of a Gary Glitter song on the soundtrack for the film's Memorable Moment of Joker dancing down some steps; some were wondering whether the American makers and American audience know about Glitter the way we do in the UK, but I think Phillips knew exactly what he was doing and why.
Of course, Joker only got made because it's a DC movie set in Gotham City and features young Bruce Wayne and his parents (who ultimately make that ill-fated theatre trip, ironically to a film about a masked avenger): it's an origins story for a comic-book villain. But you can't help feeling that if they'd junked all the Batman connections (Fleck's therapist is named Debra Kane, after original Batman co-creator Bob Kane), Joker could have been a much more interesting, serious, and grownup drama about comedy and modern society. Sadly it's shackled to its roots, setting up the bad guy for a sequel that is at least two years away and most likely won't happen with Phoenix anyway.
It is odd, but fitting, that a film about a character whose earlier incarnation had the mantra "Why so serious?", from a comicbook movie franchise that specialised in grit and grimness (while Marvel's cinematic vision was light, quip-laden knockabout), should be a non-comedic film about comedy from a director who's given up on comedy because nobody's laughing. Comparison with Scorsese's The King Of Comedy in inevitable, as Robert De Niro himself takes second billing as the TV host on whose show Fleck is desperate to appear. Plus, Joker is supposedly set in 1981, the year before The King Of Comedy came out. (As far as films about stand-ups are concerned, the low point definitely has to be Richard Driscoll's The Comic, which was slow-clapped at a Scala horror festival.) A comedian dying on his/her arse is a peculiarly horrifying, mortifying sight, like watching a traffic accident, and in the case of Joker it's made worse because deep down we really don't want Fleck to succeed: he's such a (deliberately) offputting character and performer that hideous, crushing failure is not just inevitable but justified.
So it's not a comedy, and it's not a thriller or a blockbuster, as it doesn't have action scenes and only includes a couple of viscerally violent moments (though one in particular is genuinely shocking). Nor is it really a villain piece: Fleck is pitiable and pitiful but for much of the time he's clearly not evil, and he's a long way from the dazzling criminal mastermind he supposedly becomes. Joker is more like a character who Fleck plays and is ultimately taken over by him, but he's still a long way from Romero, Nicholson or Ledger. More than anything else, Joker is more than anything else a simple drama of man versus the world and the world wins. Technically it's fine: a good exercise in convincing, detailed world-building, and well shot though saddled with a dreary, miserably joyless score. Ultimately it does as much right as it does wrong: it's an undeniably interesting film, with a great central performance, but it's definitely not a fun entertainment. I'm still not sure exactly how I feel about it: I didn't hate it, I didn't love it, it's not the best DC have done (Wonder Woman, Aquaman) and it's not the worst (Man Of Steel, Dawn Of Justice, Justice League), and I don't really feel any need to see it again.