The experience of reading Vanity Fair’s lengthy cover story on Joaquin Phoenix is similar to that of watching a horror film from the New French Extreme era, like Inside or Martyrs—it is at turns very uncomfortable and somewhat unnerving, occasionally punctuated by much-appreciated moments of dark comedic relief. Those who make it to the end may find that, although exhausting, the experience was ultimately rewarding. The main reason the actor covers this month’s issue is, of course, his role in Joker, Todd Phillips’ gritty throwback to the sort of troubled white man psycho-dramas that prospered in the ’70s and ’80s—but it’s about Batman’s arch-nemesis, the Joker, remolded in the image of Travis Bickle or Rupert Pupkin. (Robert De Niro, who played those roles for Martin Scorsese, co-stars in Joker.)
Phoenix covers a multitude of topics in this sprawling profile, ranging from surface-level (he’s vegan, he has a dog who’s allergic to direct sunlight) to the more squirm-inducing (the untimely deaths of his brother and father)—the latter largely due to Phoenix’s own understandable discomfort with the personal inquiries. Arguably, the most notable (and eye roll-triggering) revelation in the article has little to do with Phoenix himself and everything to do with his director. Phillips is one of the last directors you’d expect to tackle a Joker movie in the vein of a classic Scorsese picture (only Bill Condon or Tyler Perry would be more surprising): He’s the guy who gave us Old School and The Hangover trilogy; an auteur of white suburban men who recoil at responsibility and retreat into a frat boy fantasy world filled with kegs and chicks. So what’s this guy doing making something like Joker? It’s not as if Phillips is unfamiliar with nihilism and grime; he also made Hated: G.G. Allin And The Murder Junkies, which followed the exploits of the infamous punk rocker, who died from a drug overdose in 1993 (the same year Phillips’ doc was released). But in the years since, Phillips’ name has become synonymous with a certain brand of comedy.
As Phillips explains it, that brand of comedy is no longer profitable or welcome in this new “woke culture”:
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.’ 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.’ I’m out, and you know what? With all my comedies—I think that what comedies in general all have in common—is they’re irreverent. So I go, ‘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.’ And so that’s really where that came from.
From the sound of it, Joker is as much about Phillips’ own career struggles as The Beach Bum is about Harmony Korine. Or something.