Dry wit and deft allusion are the chief signatures of New Yorker critic Anthony Lane, whom I’ve been reading for a quarter-century. No fastballs or croquet mallets, but curves, knuckleballs, sliders. His pans suggest that disdain, anger and even disgust reside within, but Lane is hardly an emotionally open book. He always holds himself in check.
It’s therefore interesting and significant that you can detect serious, unmitigated loathing in his 9.27 review of Joker (“Todd Phillips’ Joker Is No Laughing Matter“). Not just about the film but the hype. Joker, in short, has gotten under his skin. He’s fuming and ready to take a swing. This means something.
“Here’s the deal,” Lane explains. “Joker is not a great leap forward, or a deep dive into our collective unconscious, let alone a work of art. It’s a product. All the pre-launch rumblings, the rants and the raves, testify to a cunning provocation, and, if we yield to it, we’re not joining a debate; we’re offering our services, unpaid, to the marketing department at Warner Bros.
New Yorker illustration by Zohar Lazar.
“When Dalí and Buñuel made L’Âge d’Or (1930), they wanted to start a riot, and they succeeded, but Joker yearns for little more than a hundred op-ed pieces and a firestorm of tweets. With ticket sales, naturally, to match.
“The evidence for this daring scheme is everywhere you look, in Phillips’s film, and everywhere you listen. Nicholson’s Joker may have danced and pranced to the sound of Prince’s ‘Partyman’, but Phoenix gyrates, on a steep flight of steps, to ‘Rock ’n’ Roll Part 2’, a 1972 hit by Gary Glitter. It used to be popular with sports teams, rousing the crowds at N.F.L. and N.H.L. games, before Glitter was convicted, in 1999, of possessing child pornography, and, seven years later, of sexually abusing minors, in Vietnam. Since then, understandably, the song has tumbled out of favor.
“Do you believe that the decision to revive it, for Joker, is anything but a studied choice, nicely crafted to offend? Please. I happen to dislike the film as heartily as anything I’ve seen in the past decade, but I realize, equally, that to vent any inordinate wrath toward it is to fall straight into its trap, for outrage merely proves that our attention has been snagged. Just ask the President of the United States.”
One dispute: In today’s realm, “a firestorm of tweets” is a riot.