Joker is a literal-minded movie about a character who resists interpretation by design. As Fleck spirals out of control, growing increasingly aggressive and prone to violent outbursts, the film attempts to draw a connection between the institutions that failed to assist him and his monstrous actions. At the same time, Phillips also sprinkles some populist political imagery onto the finale, portraying a city under siege by mask-wearing protesters revolting against the whims of the rich. It’s an often potent yet oddly toothless mix of loaded signifiers.
The confrontation between Joker and Murray Franklin, who initially invites Fleck onto his show to mock him, might be worth looking at more closely to figure out what exactly Phillips is up to. As a performer and a public figure, Phoenix is no stranger to the archly artificial rhythms and barbed rhetoric of the late night comedy show. During his appearance on Franklin’s show, Joker tells cruel, unfunny jokes that elicit groans from the audience and a verbal scolding from one of his fellow guests. “Comedy is subjective,” says Fleck, almost echoing some of the comments about the state of comedy that got Phillips into hot water online earlier this week. He’s on the defensive and under the lights. We know he brought a gun with him, possibly to kill himself on camera, but we can see him grow more resentful as the scene builds.
Taking on a vaguely paternal tone, De Niro’s Franklin disapprovingly notes Fleck’s “self-pithy.” In that moment, Franklin becomes a mocking stand-in for all the people who have “failed” Fleck throughout his life: His father, his mother, his doctors, and his employer. Fleck responds by telling Franklin he’ll get what he “fucking deserves” and then shoots him right in the head on live television. The audience screams, the other guests run for safety, and the crew members abandon their posts. Joker takes the camera in his hands, speaking directly to America. At that point, the rest of the movie, which follows Joker as he escape a police car, stands amongst his followers, and heads back to an institution, feels redundant. Like most tiresome comedians, Joker doesn’t know when to quit.