Todd Phillips, writer, director and purveyor of such fine films as Old School, the Hangover Trilogy, and Due Date, seems to have shifted from the comedy world into one of professional troll in his new movie, Joker. Maybe the fine film description is a stretch, but I will mention at the start that I’ve enjoyed a number of movies that Phillips is involved with. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed harder in the theater than when watching Borat, a movie where Philips won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. The first Hangover was solid, and Old School has been quotable for the last 16 years amongst my friends. Still, Phillips recently declared that it’s too difficult to make comedies anymore due to the sensitive nature of our cultural climate. It’s not an unfamiliar argument in comedy circles, and certainly not totally without merit. Sometimes we are too sensitive, and we could benefit from the ability to laugh at ourselves to help us work through our issues. I get that. The ability to be funny becomes much more of a challenge when it’s not coming at someone else’s expense. I will say as I get older that my favorite comedy is shifting to the stuff that’s more hopeful and uplifting, but I’d be a liar if I said I never enjoyed comedy that could be cruel to others for any number of reasons from race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Sometimes terrible things are funny to me, either because that’s how I cope with terrible things or because I’m a terrible person or a combination of both. All of that tracks with me, but each day I’m trying to get better, to be better, to leave better things behind for the folks that follow.
Mr. Phillips on the other hand, seems to be heading in the opposite direction. He’s out there railing against ‘woke’ culture. Phillips seems to match that last Joker in a big time movie, whom Alfred characterized by saying “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
So instead of doing something to make the climate better, he’s just going to trash it instead.
So without further ado, allow me to present my Top 5 Reasons Todd Phillips is Trolling You with Joker! Spoilers ahoy!
5) His choice of topic
I’m curious why he picked the Joker to make his movie. The interviews I’ve seen (I’m paraphrasing here) seem to state that Phillips wanted to make a grown-up movie, but slapped the comic book character on top to get the movie made.
It’s not an uncommon argument that all Hollywood seemingly wants right now are blockbusters and superhero movies, so that was his in. That makes sense on one hand because an overwhelming majority of the decade’s big blockbusters star superheroes. Picking the Joker as the subject seems particularly tone-deaf, however. There are thousands of other characters that would fit this style of storytelling where it would make sense to explore their tragic backstories. Pick up a Who’s Who of Batman baddies and snag a Mr. Zsaz or Magpie or someone like that.
If you’re going to make a movie about a character starting a movement that’s inciting violence against the upper 1-2% of the population and the police and everybody else for that matter– why choose a character who hasn’t ever had a sociological message? Why choose the character who was supposedly the basis of a real-life infraction where real people were shot and killed in a movie theater? Are you not just trolling to incite further violence? Is it exploring the zeitgeist or is it exploiting tragedies to gain an audience?
I recognize that movies don’t kill people, and I don’t mean to infer that I think they do. The movie isn’t glorifying the violence–except it kind of is. I think picking this character as well known and established as the Joker to tell this type of story is an unfortunate cultural decision. There are enough real world people struggling with the problems the movie Joker struggles with, that the others who follow the Joker in this movie struggle with, that the movie seems to be trading off of their struggles and cultural connections in an extremely unsettling way.
4) He’s Wasting Joaquin Phoenix’s Efforts
Joaquin Phoenix puts on a masterful performance in this movie. He’s disturbed. He’s unsettling. He transitions to that evil, chaotic charm by the end of the movie. It’s just a shame it happens in the context of this…thing. Phoenix is an uber-serious actor’s actor.
Imagine the time he spent losing weight, going to bed hungry, preparing himself both physically and mentally for this deranged role, this grueling performance, and he gets the end product that is this Todd Phillips troll-fest. Imagine if Phillips was able to channel JP’s efforts for a film that would actually matter? I wouldn’t be surprised if Phoenix’s efforts are rewarded come award season, but I’m sad to see those rewards come for a movie that I think is a steaming pile overall.
3) The Gary Glitter Song
If you’re of a certain age, you probably know “Rock and Roll Part Two.” For decades, it was a stadium anthem. It’s catchy. It’s iconic, even. It used to be prominently played when the Pittsburgh Penguins would score a goal. It just happens to be written and performed by a convicted child molester who has a host of other unsavory attributes associated with his name.
I’m not sure how much or if GG personally is going to make money from licensing his song in this movie, but it gets the song back out there, it gets the name back out there, and it exploits one terrible human’s actions to get a reaction in a movie theater scene. I know I was sickened when I heard the song come on as the Joker, in full costume, descended down the steps. If you don’t know the background of the singer, the song is simply a catchy tune in the background. But if you do, and this is something I’m thinking Phillips is counting on, it’s just sickening.
Once again, it’s a troll-move if there ever was one, exploiting the work of a criminal deviant to get a reaction in a big budget Hollywood movie. Surely there are less despicable ways to disturb your audience than exploiting real life child molestation.
2) Phillips Is a Glorified Hack.
First, the plot holes that damage the suspension of belief with the audience really damage the movie. With any movie, there are scenes where I can sit back and say, ‘that’s not how that would happen in real life,’ but this movie tended to tack more and more of those on as it went. Thomas Wayne would have security to punch Joker in the nose if he even tried to follow him into the bathroom. The really rich don’t get their hands dirty like that.
Robert De Niro’s talk show host would have had police immediately swarming during the interview after about ten seconds in.
The glaring holes in character’s decision making continually took me out of the movie here. Tack onto that Phillips’s need to include the Wayne family murder scene that’s been on the big screen a billion times already. Oh, but he’s tying that into the Joker, too. Wait. Tim Burton did that 30 years ago. Never mind.
Even the Easter eggs were meh. Phillips shouts out Ed Helms by naming a cafe after him. Traditionally comic movies shout out comic creators, not the guy who dragged down the Office in its last seasons while schlepping Hangover schlock.
And let’s not get started about how the majority of this movie is just the plots of Taxi Driver and the King of Comedy loosely stitched together.
It’s no wonder Marty Scorsese doesn’t like super hero movies. If he decides this is the one he’s going to see, he’s only going to see poor imitations of his work. And Scorsese didn’t need generic flashback scenes to explain the damage done to his characters like Phillips uses. Scorsese told his stories from the POV of his unreliable narrators and let the story do the rest.
Phillips isn’t that strong of a filmmaker to stick with that through-line. So instead, he tried to make a Scorsese movie with Batman-based scene-glue, and he failed to make something as powerful as any previous Scorsese or Batman movie. Phillips’s philosophical notes fall flat as this movie isn’t really about anything that hasn’t been done better many times before.
It’s just like a troll to not add anything new to either effort. Phillip’s hack writing might have worked for Starsky and Hutch because that was funny. This is just sad. Oh yeah, the Hangover sequels were terrible, too!
Go rent a Scorsese movie and skip the dollar store knockoff called Joker.
1) Phillips’s Message Is a Step Backwards.
Great filmmakers use their works to shine a lite on reality, to help illuminate issues that need changed or addressed. Phillips instead trades off of exploiting issues like mental illness or gun violence to promote his own damaged brand of nihilistic philosophy for the purpose of adding cash to his bank account and the accounts of other lesser humans like Gary Glitter. Phillips isn’t making great art, he’s tracing it, hoping the derivative product can trick audiences into buying it as though it’s the real thing.
Here’s the story of an ignored and neglected white(face-painted) male lashing out against society. We have enough of those already in real life to shine the spotlight on one in the movies.
I was willing to buy into this movie initially because I though it had potential to send an artful message. As the press tours ensued and Phillips started making arguments about how his movie is no different or worse than the John Wick movies, I cringed, but still was interested in seeing the movie. As Phillips and WB deflected the calls from the victims of mass shootings to turn this project into something that could help prevent future gun violence, they really started losing me. Then, I unfortunately paid to see this movie that glorified the nihilism of the Joker, that peddled the work of a pedophile to prove a point, and I realized this isn’t art. It’s trash–just like the trash that lines the streets in this movie, left out to rot for all to see thanks to a garbage strike. But that’s what trolls do. They fling their trash out there in order to drag everyone else down into the muck.
I guess that means the joke’s on me this time. That joke is as cliched as Phillips’s supposed points in this movie!
I know when I’m being trolled.
Somebody should have gotten to Joaquin Phoenix earlier to let him know. Hack writing can work in Hangovers, but it stands out here. Cringe comedy can work with Phillips’s pals like Zach Galifinakis or Sacha Baron Cohen, but they have more tact than this. Barring some significant changes, I won’t make a similar mistake with a “serious” Todd Philips movie again.
For my official grade on the movie and a review with my podcast pals, check out our show this upcoming Tuesday!
Until next time, I’ll be trying to flush my memory of this one by watching better Batman stuff! Where are my Cesar Romero dvds?