Separating Artist from Art: Todd Phillips and Joker

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Joker, written and directed by Todd Phillips, is a dense and troublesome look into the making of one of pop culture’s most iconic villains. The legend and gossip that surround the intensity and brutality of the film almost do it a disservice, and Phillips is partially to blame for this. Before I carry on, I would like to enact a heavy spoiler warning. The film has been out for long enough now that I feel comfortable getting into the nitty gritty, but if you have not seen the film and do not want it spoiled do not read any further. 

I was extremely excited for this film; it was easily one of my most anticipated films of the year. The trailers were amazing, and I was looking forward to seeing what a serious Joker film would look like. What soiled this, though, was Todd Phillips discussing to press that Joker is his response to woke culture. He was quoted in Vanity Fair saying, “’Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture. 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.’... ‘How do I do something irreverent, but fuck comedy? Oh I know, let’s take the comic book movie universe and turn it on its head with this.’” 

I find it slightly horrifying that Todd Phillips would be so outspoken about how the angry, failed comedian clown movie he made was a response to woke culture finding him unfunny. Approaching the film through this lens allowed for an intense and uncomfortable viewing experience. 

With this viewpoint in mind, let’s unpack the film. Joaquin Phoenix is unbelievable as Arthur Fleck / Joker. He is the strong point of the film, and I wholeheartedly believe the film would not have been as good had anyone else been cast in the role. Phoenix fully embodies the Joker, and most of the film’s redeeming qualities lie in how amazing his performance is. The arc from Arthur Fleck to Joker can be likened to that of man decides he has had enough of being rejected, stops  caring, and seeks revenge. 

The film is not overly violent or grotesque, and it is not disturbing in the ways people have been describing it as. It is simply a whine-fest. A beautifully acted, well-crafted, subtle whine-fest. Throughout the film we see various interactions where characters do not find Arthur funny, most notably at the film’s climax. Arthur is brought on to the Murray Franklin show to talk about his flopped standup routine, and Murray uses the opportunity to make fun of Arthur to the audience. Arthur tells a joke, with the punchline as him shooting Murray in the face. Within the context of the film, it is visceral and cold-blooded, but with Todd Phillips’s comments in mind, it is just whiny. 

Todd Phillips was angry because he believed people were too sensitive for his humor, so he made a film about an angry man that felt like people were too sensitive for his humor, and audiences loved it. This film is so full of instances where characters are punished over not finding Arthur funny; it is impossible to ignore. 

This film tackles this subject matter in such a way that if Phillips never said anything, I would not have commented on the film this way. Instead, his film becomes alienating for audiences, especially those that did not find his previous work, The Hangover series, all that funny. It is difficult to walk away from such a great film with a sour stomach because of the director’s arrogance. I find myself split in two when it comes to Joker

The quality of Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is better than the movie itself, and I loved how the film looked aesthetically. From a technical standpoint, the film is a triumph. Joker is one of those films that could be stopped on any random shot and it would look like a photograph. Aesthetically, the film is consistent in theme. There were a few elements of the film that were a bit inconsistent, I found that the score of the film did not always align with the film itself, and it was extremely distracting. Overall, I had a really great experience with the film until I approached it a second time with Todd Phillip’s comments in mind.