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‘Joker’ Has a Todd Phillips Problem

The dark origin story is a terrific, thought-provoking film about violence and mental health. But nobody wants to believe that because the dude who directed ‘The Hangover’ made it.

When I tell people how great Joker is, I tend to get the same response: a flabbergasted “Really?!?!” They don’t say that because they’ve seen the film and disagree with my assessment — it’s that, sight unseen, they can’t fathom how it could possibly be good. There are a lot of understandable reasons for that sentiment: Nobody needs another comic-book movie, nobody needs another “dark” origin story and nobody is dying to see another serious actor play the Joker. Plus, in our current climate where random acts of violence are rampant, a film about a picked-on dude who goes homicidal is an easy “pass” for lots of viewers.

But I’d like to suggest yet another reason why I imagine some potential audience members are dreading this new Joker, and it’s because of who made the film. The world is a dispiriting, ugly place these days — does anybody expect Todd Phillips to be the man to make sense of it?

Not exactly a household name like Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino, Phillips has made his career directing comedies like Road Trip, Old School and The Hangover. He’s an expert at a certain kind of bro-centric buddy movie in which the guys are often kinda douche-y and the female characters are largely ornamental. In other words, he isn’t the sort of filmmaker you necessarily want getting his hands on something like the Joker. The movie is about mental illness, alienation and bullying — it speaks to our country’s economic inequality, anger and disillusionment. Joker is a serious film. What’s a deeply unserious director doing with material this volatile and sensitive?

The movie’s biggest critics wonder the same thing. Reviewing Joker from the Venice Film Festival — where it won the top prize, which has been claimed in recent years by Oscar-winners Roma and The Shape of Water —’s Glenn Kenny lamented what he considered the movie’s fashionable attempt at being dark, suggesting that Phillips didn’t have the artistic heft for such provocative content: 

“Darkness no longer has much to do with feelings of alienation the filmmaker wants to express or purge, as was the case with a film like Taxi Driver. It’s not about exploring uncomfortable ideas, as was done in The King of Comedy. Do you think Todd Phillips, who co-wrote and directed Joker, and references those movies so often you might expect that Martin Scorsese was enlisted as an executive producer here as a way of heading off a plagiarism lawsuit, really cares about income inequality, celebrity worship and the lack of civility in contemporary society? I don’t know him personally but I bet he doesn’t give a toss. He’s got the pile he made on those Hangover movies — which some believe have indeed contributed to the lack of civility in contemporary society, etc. — and can not only buy up all the water that’s going to be denied us regular slobs after the big one hits, he can afford the bunker for after the bigger one hits.”

Kenny wasn’t the only one who used Phillips’ past success with uncouth comedies as proof that he couldn’t make a serious work of art. (Slant’s Keith Uhlich declared in his negative review, “Joker is a film that might have been dreamed up by one of the cynical bros at the center of the director’s Hangover trilogy during a blacked-out stupor.”) I’d be annoyed by those attacks if I hadn’t harbored some of the same reservations going into Joker. I, too, couldn’t quite buy Phillips making a movie about The Way We Live Today. I ended up being duly impressed by Joker I think it’s one of the year’s best films — and yet I simultaneously almost wish Phillips hadn’t been the one to make it. 

The movie is quite an achievement, but Phillips doesn’t seem equipped to handle how it’s going to be received in the marketplace. That’s not fair — a movie ought to speak for itself — but Phillips’ supreme Phillips-ness has made it harder for people like me to defend Joker. He deserves a lot of credit for making such a thought-provoking, emotionally complex film, but now I wish he’d stop talking about it, because he’s actually hurting the cause. 

Joker, as you no doubt know, tells of how Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) goes from being an ineffectual, troubled loser to the Joker, Gotham’s most terrifying villain. Drawing from both Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy — two classic films about dangerously unstable loners — the movie plays with the iconography of this mass-murderer while carefully tracking his descent into madness. Some have accused Joker of sympathizing with its subject — or condoning the violence he spreads across Gotham — but I consider those to be superficial readings of Phillips’ film. To my mind, Joker is a tragedy about a decent, mentally unstable individual who chooses darkness and death as his way of hitting back at the world — he picks the wrong path, destroying countless lives along the way. (As Phillips accurately describes the film, “You want to root for this guy until you can’t root for him any longer.”) 

How Joker could, in any way, be seen as pandering to incel culture is beyond me. The movie is violent, but it’s also a legitimate condemnation of violence — it acknowledges that there are people filled with demons and rage, but it doesn’t celebrate them or embrace anarchy. To paraphrase a famous line from The Dark Knight, the best of all Joker movies, Phillips’ movie doesn’t want to watch the world burn.

To be fair, those aren’t necessarily the complaints leveled against the film by Kenny, Uhlich and others — they generally find Joker shallow or self-satisfied in its bleakness — but no matter what criticism you have about this movie, you can rest assured knowing that you have Phillips in the opposite corner. I think The Hangover is a very funny and self-aware movie about a bunch of idiots — it’s a takedown of douche culture while still being a pretty accessible bromance — but Phillips’ track record helps his detractors more than his advocates. The Hangover sequels are abominations. Due Date was asinine. His first stab at “serious” fare — the true-life crime drama War Dogs — aped another Scorsese movie, Goodfellas, while patting itself on the back for how, like, deep it was about, like, the hypocrisy of war, man. And if you don’t believe that The Hangover was any sort of satire, well, that’s how I feel about Old School, which too easily coddled the limited worldview of its overgrown man-child main characters.

In other words, this isn’t the guy you’d assume capable of making a responsible, sobering Joker. But despite some of its narrative lapses and heavy Scorsese worship, Joker is easily the most complete and emotional work he’s ever achieved. Of course, he’s aided by Phoenix, who makes Arthur touching and frightening, but Phillips has earned the kudos he’s got coming his way. 

However, it would be easier to laud him if he didn’t act the way he does. I still can’t shake the obnoxious controversy that arose around 2011’s The Hangover Part II, in which Phillips bragged that he got the movie’s monkey character addicted to cigarettes by teaching her how to smoke for the film. After widespread outrage, the director insisted he was joking: “There are people on set whose sole job is to protect that monkey,” he wrote in a statement. “Even if I wanted her to smoke it wouldn’t be allowed.” But rather than his detractors coming across as humorless or overly sensitive, Phillips just seemed like a glib jerk, especially when he added, “By the way, she also appears to do cocaine in the movie, but I guarantee you that she didn’t do that either (I can’t, however, comment on Ken Jeong’s cocaine use in the film).” 

Phillips has said nothing as boneheaded during the Joker promotional tour, but he continues to give off the air of a guy who’s a bit too pleased with himself. He’s made a point about the fact that he doesn’t much like superhero films. (“I’ve been offered a few over the years and my thing was always: I don’t watch those movies,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s not because I don’t think it’s cool. It’s just like, quite frankly, they’re always so loud.”) He’s talked about loving gritty 1970s character studies and wanting to do a comic-book movie in that vein, as if it was that subversive or radical a creative act. (As he told The Wrap, he pitched Phoenix on signing up for Joker by saying, “Look at this as a way to sneak a real movie in the studio system under the guise of a comic book film.”)

He’s pushed back against criticism that Joker might incite violence by moaning about that old chestnut, outrage culture. (In the same Wrap piece, he says, “I think it’s because outrage is a commodity, I think it’s something that has been a commodity for a while. What’s outstanding to me in this discourse in this movie is how easily the far left can sound like the far right when it suits their agenda. It’s really been eye opening for me.”) And in a just-published Vanity Fair piece, he whined about a climate that would no longer accept Hangover-style comedies. “Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture,” he said. “There were articles written about why comedies don’t work anymore — I’ll tell you why, because all the fucking funny guys are like, ‘Fuck this shit, because I don’t want to offend you.’ It’s hard to argue with 30 million people on Twitter. You just can’t do it, right? So you just go, ‘I’m out.’”

There are going to be those who dislike Joker no matter what. And I agree with some of what Phillips has had to say about his movie. (Plus, I think he’s right to call out commentators who haven’t even bothered to see Joker before rendering a negative verdict about its intentions.) But he hasn’t proved to be its best defender because, deep down, I think he walks a little too close to the line of thinking that the Joker is an awesome badass. To be sure, he’s said the exact opposite in interviews — “We didn’t make the movie to push buttons,” he told The Wrap, later adding, “It wasn’t, ‘We want to glorify this behavior’” — but part of Joker’s power is that it understands what has made this character such an arresting cultural phenomenon for so long.

We all understand that the Joker is depraved and terrible, but we also secretly love his anarchy — that sense of chaos he hurls at Batman. The Joker allows us to live vicariously through such evil, safe in the knowledge that we’d never really be like him in real life. Isn’t that one of the fundamental pleasures of movies: getting to experience different perspectives, even ones we’d normally find abhorrent? Whether it was Jack Nicholson or Heath Ledger, movie Jokers have been temporary gateways into giddy, unbridled menace, which is why they’re such beloved performances. By comparison, Phoenix captivates as Joker, but he also makes us feel the human toll for such villainy — his wickedness has no escapist kick because the real-world consequences are readily apparent once he starts unleashing hell. Perversely, it took a less “artistic” director like Phillips — who has a knack for mainstream, play-to-the-cheap-seats entertainment — to make Joker’s terrible descent so undeniably gripping and compelling.

A colleague and friend talked to me about Joker a few weeks ago — he likes the film far less than I do — and at one point he said to me, with kindness, “Is it possible that the things you like about the movie are things that you’re bringing to it?” In other words: Maybe I was reading too much into Joker. Maybe I was giving Phillips credit for depth and nuance that, in fact, are not present in the film. That’s always possible: One of the toughest things about evaluating movies is figuring out how to judge the work on its own merits, as opposed to the biases or preconceived notions you have about the film or the people who made it. There’s always a chance that the Joker I see in front of me is more magnetic and thought-provoking than the one Phillips actually intended — maybe he’s just a cynical douche-bro and I’m deluding myself.

But isn’t it also possible that, every once in a while, a heretofore-mediocre filmmaker stumbles into greatness? Maybe he doesn’t even know how it happened, but it did? The Joker is one of comic book’s great enigmas. What’s proved fascinating about the discussion around Joker is that, in his own way, Phillips has become just as mysterious. How did that guy make a movie this good?

Here are three other takeaways from Joker

#1. ‘The King of Comedy’ is still incredibly upsetting.

Joker pays homage to several films, including The King of Comedy, Martin Scorsese’s underrated dark portrait of a disturbed aspiring stand-up, Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), who’s obsessed with a popular talk-show host (Jerry Lewis). Long before we had the relatively tame cringe comedy of Curb Your Enthusiasm, this movie gave us prickly characters that made you squirm, casting a harsh light on toxic fandom and fragile showbiz egos. And De Niro is astonishingly unhinged — in a different, subtler way than Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle — as he played a fractured soul whose desperation to “make it” might lead to violence.

The movie ends with De Niro succeeding in his demented plan to take the host hostage and land a guest spot on his show. The King of Comedy builds to this moment — how will Rupert do on stage? — and his set is initially surprisingly funny. But then it turns horrifying, offering a twisted take on how personal pain gets transformed into “entertainment” for an audience:

It’s a nice touch that De Niro plays the popular talk-show host in Joker — this time, he gets to be the object of an obsessive’s attention. What goes around comes around.

#2. Here’s a quick overview of extreme things actors have done to prepare for playing the Joker.

Because Batman’s archenemy is such an extreme character, it requires a lot of the actors who play him — or, at the very least, it inspires actors to go to incredible, sometimes ridiculous lengths to get into the Joker’s headspace. And so, here’s a brief rundown of what different Jokers have done to get into character: 

Jack Nicholson, Batman: The Oscar-winner received a nomination for his portrayal in the Tim Burton film, selecting his own wardrobe and studying the 1928 silent drama The Man Who Laughs, which starred Conrad Veidt as a character with an eerie frozen grin. (Nicholson had learned that Batman creator Bob Kane had been inspired by the film for his original conception of the Joker.) “I’d do anything that came into my mind,” Nicholson later said of playing the role, famously coming up with his character’s signature line: “Ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?” (“I just like the sound of it,” he explained later.)

Mark Hamill, Batman: The Animated Series and elsewhere: Luke Skywalker auditioned for the voice role after original choice, Tim Curry, got canned. Being told by the producers, “Don’t think Jack Nicholson, Hamill based his character on his work on stage as Amadeus in the award-winning Amadeus. “On those shows, you can’t change the words,” he later said, “but I would play around with the laugh. Because of the play, I had an arsenal of laughs for the Joker.” More shockingly, however, is the fact that he also took inspiration from… Jay Leno’s cadence. Now that’s truly horrifying.

Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight: The Australian actor, who won a posthumous Oscar for the role, spent more than a month alone in a hotel room, immersing himself in the character and writing a journal of his ideas for the performance. (Sample entry: “He’s laughing red and black and red and black till there’s nothing left to laugh.”) “That was typical of Heath on any movie,” his father Keith later said, “he would certainly immerse himself in the character and I think this was just a whole new level.”

Jared Leto, Suicide Squad: The Dallas Buyers Club Oscar-winner is the all-time champ for crazy preparations to play the Joker. He supposedly sent used condoms to his cast mates. (He later denied this… after saying that he had.) He insisted on being referred to as “Mr. J” on set. He gave his co-star Margot Robbie a live rat. Yeah, Leto really loved channeling the character’s chaos. As he told Rolling Stone, “If the Joker did this interview, he’d definitely castrate you and make you eat your own testicles. Just for fun. That’s if he liked you.” Incidentally, Suicide Squad is terrible, and Leto’s performance is unbearably mannered.

Joaquin Phoenix, Joker: The movie hasn’t come out yet, but you’ve probably already heard all about the preparations that went into the performance. Phoenix lost around 50 pounds and studied the lives of political assassins. Plus, there are those stories about how he’d storm off the set in the middle of a take if, according to Phillips, “he just wasn’t feeling it.” “If I don’t feel like I’m pushing myself in some ways, I’ll get bored, or maybe they’ll get bored of me,” Phoenix recently told The New York Times. “I don’t know who’s going to get bored of who first.” Considering how terrific he is in Joker, “bored” isn’t a word I’d use to describe him or the movie.

#3. Yes, Joaquin Phoenix is a tough interview. He’s also a really fun one.

If you’ve read Phoenix’s New York Times profile, you’ve probably deduced that the actor can be, well, a bit of a handful. Throughout the interview, he’s hesitant to reveal much of himself and is sometimes playfully combative. He’s not at all a jerk, but he comes across as ill-at-ease with the whole celebrity apparatus. (His frequent collaborator, director James Gray, says this about his acting, but it could just as easily apply to his promotional appearances: “He didn’t have full control of his instrument. He was like an Olympic diver who didn’t know the formal rules of the Olympics yet.”) 

I know all this firsthand because I’ve had two encounters with Phoenix over the years, both a touch unusual. The first was when I presented him with the Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s award for Best Actor for The Master at our annual banquet. Backstage, after the presentation, he kept saying, almost nervously, that he didn’t deserve the award, as if some terrible mistake had occurred. The second time, I interviewed him and director Lynne Ramsay for their incredible work in You Were Never Really Here. Before the interview began, Phoenix walked into the conference room, and we chatted briefly, me telling him how much I loved the movie. A few minutes later, Ramsay came in, and Phoenix announced, “Lynne, this guy didn’t like our movie.” He was clearly joking, but he was so dry in his delivery that I actually had to say, “Lynne, don’t listen to him — I loved it.”

In person, Phoenix is uncomfortable but also incredibly thoughtful and intense — if anything, he cares too deeply about what’s happening, and doesn’t want it to devolve into phony Hollywood/showbiz bullshit. He cares about his work, but not the promotion of it — if he didn’t have to do any interviews at all, I imagine he’d be happier. Nonetheless, I greatly enjoyed our time together. He’s such a vibrant, alive human being, so unpredictable, that I was hardly surprised that, during our interview, an earthquake hit. Even Mother Nature isn’t immune to his considerable powers.