The Emperor Has No Jokes: How Come None of Y'all Told Me That Joker Was So Damn Boring?

Screenshot: Warner Bros.

Mostly, Joker was what I expected it to be.

I’d read and heard enough about it in the past several weeks that I knew what to anticipate. I knew it’d be a goulash of loud and important-sounding themes—
“mental health!” “economic anxiety!” “capitalism!”—without actually saying much about any of them. Ellipses on a neon billboard. I knew it would waste Zazie Beetz and Brian Tyree Henry like timeouts a coach forgot to use. I knew it’d be similar to The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, the way flood water is akin to the Mississippi River. And I knew Joaquin Phoenix would chew so much scenery that you’d see it poking through his rib cage. With Joker’s late-’70s New York City aesthetic, his performance reminded me of another movie from that same approximate era: Midnight Cowboy. Each time he was on screen—which is almost the entire fucking movie—I thought of Ratso Rizzo, but screaming “I’M ACTING HERE! I’M ACTING HERE!” instead.

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I also knew it was so potentially explosive that, in the weeks approaching its release, there were legitimate concerns it would inspire mass shootings at each showing. Admittedly, this was on my mind when we entered the theater, and I felt a tinge of relief when I noticed that the audience was mostly black. (What was I expecting? I don’t know. A sea of melancholy white men in trench coats, maybe? Ben Shapiro?)

Despite all of this, I was still looking forward to seeing it. I knew it would be all the things I knew it would be, but I still expected it to be interesting, at least. Something that would make me think “Well, that was interesting, at least.” And when my wife’s and my travel and work and childcare schedules finally aligned last Friday, we finally did see it. And, well, you know the feeling when you visit some hot new restaurant for the first time, and you get the food and wonder if you’re maybe in the wrong place? Not because the food is bad, but because it’s just so aggressively forgettable? (“People are arguing about these inert ass tacos? Really?”) This is Joker.

It is not a bad movie. It’s just pathologically un-rewatchable. And not because it’s so dark and disturbing that you can’t put yourself through that experience again. (Like Funny Games, for instance.) It’s like watching ice melt. Or, better yet, paint joke. It hasn’t even been a week, and I can’t think of a single scene I’d want to see again. It’s just so damn...boring.

I have a few theories about what makes it such a drag, including but not limited to a lack of interesting sub-characters, a criminal lack of humor, the narcotic self-seriousness of it, the predictability of what’s supposed to be shocking violence (the people Joker kills don’t just have it coming; they’re wearing shirts with “KILL ME, cause it fits the dramatic arc” spray-painted on them), and a complete void of tension, but I think—and I’ll tell on myself a bit here—the main culprit is that it was made by Todd Phillips, who is a white man.

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Although Joker has been criticized for being irresponsible, erratic, foggy, and even racist, “holy shit this is boring as the fuck” is a critique I haven’t read or heard. (If those critiques do exist, please share them.) And I think we—and I’m including myself because I’ve been guilty of this before, too—sometimes assign inherent interestingness to things created by and/or about white men. Like, the movie/play/show/book can be all these other not-good-at-all things, but at least it won’t be boring. At least it’ll be worth the watch/read/listen. At least you’ll have something to talk about afterward. But all we wanted to talk about after Joker was the weather. (It was drizzly and mild.)

Its reception reminds me of the sort of whiteness calculus that occurs when white male developers and inventors get millions (sometimes billions) in investments despite half-assed and unbaked pitches and products. “Yeah this idea is dumb, but maybe he’ll figure it out, so let’s give him 57 million.Joker performs interestingness. It looks, sounds, feels, and acts like it has necessary things to say. It’s wearing the interesting costume and speaking the interesting tongue. It looks like it should command the room at a dinner party. But it’s a shotgun loaded with spitballs. The emperor has no jokes.

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I doubt it’s a coincidence that the last time this happened to me—a movie was hyped for being so much something, and then I saw it and was like “Really? That’s it?”—it was another Todd Phillips movie: The Hangover. Which was, effectively, the world’s first meme; a two-hour representation of funny things in place of actual funny things. (Also, it’s kinda funny how Phillips is all like “It’s so very, very, very hard to make comedy now.” Considering The Hangover’s (lack of) humor, it was hard for him to make comedy then, too.)

But like Joker, The Hangover was wildly successful. Which makes me think that maybe I’m just eating at the wrong restaurants.

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About the author

Damon Young

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB and a columnist for GQ.com. His debut memoir in essays, What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins), is available for preorder.