The Strawberry Criterion: JOKER

Few works of art are less dangerous than a work of art billed as “dangerous,” especially when the ones doing the billing are the feckless, fangless goobers of contemporary cinema’s critical class. Since its premiere, last month, at the Venice Film Festival, where it was awarded the competition’s highest prize, Todd Phillip’s JOKER has careened into theaters like a clown car with slashed brake lines, its runaway momentum propelled by critics and marketers and concern trolls who, almost uniformly, had not yet seen the film. Nevertheless, all parties found themselves in vocal, presumptive agreement that this particular comic book property, amongst the stupefying deluge of others, posed a unique threat to our threadbare national fabric. “Now more than ever,” the transformation of a disenfranchised white male into a nihilistic mass killer was a story that didn’t warrant telling; why bother, when the same waking nightmare was already playing out across our televisions, on our news feeds, in the backs of our minds whenever a solitary, semi-suspicious man appeared in the doorway of our classrooms, churches, multiplexes? For these paranoid scolds, releasing JOKER into a culture this on-edge represented an act of near-criminal recklessness, each screening fated to awaken untold sleeper cells of homicidal virgins, an army of Manchurian incels who would unleash supervillainous levels of death and destruction across the American landscape. More so than ready access to automatic weapons, insufficient funding for mental health programs, or historic levels of social isolation and economic precariousness, this film–the twisted clown movie–was the event that future generations would turn to when determining what finally, inevitably, caused all those sick sad boys to take up arms against their countrymen.

What a joke! The reason why JOKER has had the mantle of “dangerous” thrust upon it has little to do with the film itself, everything to do with the perilously denuded critical ecosystem of the post-2016 internet. Unlike even the best entries in the superhero genre, JOKER is a narratively simple, psychologically coherent story, a more or less straightforward account of one tortured man’s physical and spiritual degradation at the hands of easily identifiable material forces. Financial insecurity. Deficient healthcare. A literal garbage strike. And yet, critics still cry confusion, danger, carelessness. In his poignantly obtuse review for The New Yorker, Richard Brody describes the film as an “utterly incoherent” viewing experience, a “wanna-be movie…utterly devoid of any racial or social specificity.” Throughout his piece, Brody points to JOKER‘s unconsidered repurposing of real-world racial strife as fodder for character development, how Phillips offers up people of color as sacrifices to his white protagonist’s devolution into psychopathy. Most tellingly, Brody bemoans what little resemblance JOKER bears to last year’s Black Panther, a proper corporate comic book adaptation defined by “boldly assertive political visions” and “rich world-building.” As viewers may recall, that film ended with its hero murdering his politically revolutionary rival before opening up a means-tested tutoring center to solve racial inequality in Oakland. Boldly assertive indeed.

The misclassification of JOKER as a “dangerous” film thus comes down to a fundamental and era-specific misunderstanding of point of view, class consciousness, and the occasionally aligned, mostly divergent purposes of art and entertainment. To simplify matters greatly, it’s the artist’s imperative to synthesize and render reality; the Disney executive’s role is to sell a comforting fantasy, like an Africa untouched by colonialism, or dancing slaveowners who rap, or a classless, post-racial high school where everyone gets into Yale. As played by Joaquin Phonix, JOKER‘s Arthur Fleck is the ugly, brutal reality of the downwardly mobile white American, a self-perceived outcast who, like the film that mirrors his perception, logically harbors seething resentment towards both the majority-minority lower class and the white capitalist upper class. Like the America he personifies, Phoenix’s Joker is violent, racist, misogynistic, deluded, over- and under- medicated, addicted to vacuous entertainment and, worst of all, he thinks that he is funny. Shrink-wrapped in bruised sinew, Fleck recalls the other Great American Incel of post-2001 American cinema, There Will Be Blood‘s Daniel Plainview, yet here there is far less technical mastery or directorial flourish to mitigate the vileness of a character subsumed, in mind and body, by the empty promise of America. Perhaps this is why so many have responded so irrationally to the film’s release. Like all superhero movies, JOKER is overlong, self-serious, and needlessly tied to other intellectual properties, but it’s also dangerously revealing of one important truth, an undeniable fact about the class of people who still review our movies, control our government, sign our checks. Punchline first: It’s easier to fear the monster outside the door than the one inside your own heart. Knock, knock.

Final Strawberry Verdict: 4.25 Strawberries out of 5