The Joker press tour has been messy, and it’s not doing the movie any favors. Warner Bros. was always going to have a tough time promoting Joker, the reimagining of the Clown Prince of Crime’s origin story. It’s a prequel of sorts with little concern for wider DC canon; it’s a violent R-rated drama steeped in realism; and it’s directed by Todd Phillips, a man best known for making The Hangover trilogy.
When Joker premiered at the Venice Film Festival (then went on to win the Golden Lion award, the highest honor they bestow), it seemed as though Joker had taken an unexpected turn in Hollywood: Now they were aiming for prestige. It’s certainly a gutsy move and one that comes with its own set of benefits should the team pull it off successfully, but it’s also placed the cast and crew of Joker under a much harsher spotlight than they may have expected. It’s debatable whether Warner Bros., Phillips, and leading man Joaquin Phoenix were 100% aware of the melting pot of potential controversies they were entering when the promotional tour for Joker started.
Everyone involved has talked candidly about Joker’s more shocking elements, but it often feels like they greatly underestimated how tricky this spiel was going to be for them. Nowhere has that been more evident than with the slew of interviews and junkets, especially as Joker falls under harsher criticism and faces accusations of glorifying and inciting violence. So, how did it all go wrong? Was Joker always destined to suffer through this kind of press tour or did the team make easily avoidable mistakes? The answer is somewhere in the middle.
Joaquin Phoenix’s Awkward Interviews
Interviewing Joaquin Phoenix, one of this generation’s most acclaimed actors, has always been something of a challenge for journalists. The three-time Oscar nominee has been open about his distaste for the experience and it’s not hard to find write-ups of interviews where he didn’t answer questions or simply made the task more awkward than necessary. In fairness to Phoenix, he’s been in this business since he was eight years old and has candidly talked about the struggles of being asked very invasive questions about his life, health, and family, particularly the death of his brother, actor River Phoenix, from a drug overdose at the age of 23.
For anyone with a solid knowledge of Phoenix, what has proven most interesting about the Joker press tour is how unusually relaxed and cooperative he’s seemed for the vast majority of it. He’s given very personal interviews to publications like Vanity Fair and The New York Times, accepted awards at film festivals graciously (and even spoke about his brother at one ceremony at 2019's Toronto International Film Festival), and even walked the red carpet with his family and girlfriend, actress Rooney Mara. This is all very much out of character for an actor who is typically known for doing the bare minimum for promotion, often acting as if the experience is as excruciating as having his teeth pulled, then disappearing from the spotlight. It hasn’t hurt his chances of getting an Oscar nomination, a process that’s always been more reliant on self-promotion than the actual acting.
But people won’t remember the many good interviews Phoenix gave this season for Joker. They’ll probably remember the two mega awkward ones. First, there was the interview with The Telegraph, where Phoenix walked out after being confronted with a question about whether he felt the film could incite violence in real life. After an hour, Phoenix did come back and complete the interview, but the myriad spinoff headlines reporting that he “stormed out” or “fled” the interview got more attention than the interview itself, which is deeply interesting and doesn’t characterize him leaving as a diva-esque act.
Phoenix also appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live to promote the movie. Phoenix doesn’t do many talk-show interviews, so the chances are this was intended as the big one. It’s not the worst TV interview he’s given, but it’s clear he’s not comfortable with the process. Then Kimmel shows a tape from the Joker set he claims Todd Phillips sent him, featuring Phoenix leaving the set after berating cinematographer Lawrence Sher. Phoenix’s publicist said the video was a “joke outtake” (via EW), which is common stuff for Kimmel’s show, but Phoenix’s flustered response felt palpably real in a way that sat uncomfortably for a lot of viewers. Granted, this is Joaquin Phoenix, a guy who admits his own sense of humor is twisted and who isn’t exactly new to screwing around on talk shows. He or his team would have had to approve the video beforehand. It’s a weird and not obviously comedic moment, which is what makes it so strange, and the audience don’t seem in on the joke, and that’s kind of the problem.
Overall, Joaquin Phoenix has mostly just been a better-behaved version of Joaquin Phoenix for the Joker press tour. Warner Bros. knew what they were getting into when they hired him to do this movie – the most high-profile and mainstream title he’s made since 2005’s Walk the Line – so would have had to prepare for a lot of possible mishaps. Mostly, he’s stuck to his job. However, they may not have given the same memo to Todd Phillips.
Todd Phillips Won’t Stop Talking
If the Joker press tour ends up sinking hard, the lion’s share of blame will fall on the shoulders of its director. By the time the film made its way to America for the promotional cycle, Phillips had already won the Golden Lion, received an eight-minute standing ovation at Venice, garnered the best reviews of his career, and become a legitimate Oscar contender. Essentially, he had already won. And then he kept stepping his mouth in it.
Promoting a title like Joker was always going to be treacherous even before people started calling it “incel bait”. Times are tough, politically speaking, and a deft hand was needed to ensure everyone involved got across the message about the movie’s intent and why audiences needn’t fear it. Phillips hasn’t exactly helped to quash those fires by blaming “woke culture” for the reason he left comedy, defending the film by confusingly comparing it to the John Wick series, complained about audiences being too politically correct, and claim that Joker is a “real movie” unlike everything else in the comic book movie genre.
It’s especially strange to hear Phillips claim comedians can’t be funny or transgressive in 2019 when the biggest names in comedy include Hannah Gadsby, Ali Wong, Trevor Noah, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and Natasha Lyonne, all of whom are pushing boundaries in hilarious ways. Phillips insisted what he was doing with Joker was a big risk because nobody will make comedies now for fear of offending people. That’s a bold accusation to make at a time when the current Best Picture Oscar front-runner is a comedy set in Nazi Germany featuring a young boy whose imaginary best friend is Adolf Hitler: Jojo Rabbit. And Jojo Rabbit director Taika Waititi succinctly responded to Phillips on Twitter.
It’s understandable why Phillips would want to defend Joker against very tough and often bad-faith accusations, and there are certainly ways he could have done so. This is a film that’s projected to do big business regardless of promo mishaps, but those increasingly loud debates surrounding it can put off audiences and Phillips must be aware of this. He must understand on some level how distasteful it is for potential fans to hear the same rhetoric used to defend right-wing harassment and abuse is now being leveraged by a major Hollywood director to fend off the mildest of criticisms. Phillips has claimed he wants the movie to speak for itself, yet he can’t stop digging the hole of outrage that reflects so poorly on Joker.
Joker’s Premiere Gets Extra Security, No Reporters
There are also elements of the Joker press tour that not even Phillips could avoid. Fears of Joker’s potential to incite violence have led to promises of increased security at screenings. Some theaters have banned customers from attending in costumes, while other cinemas have elected not to screen Joker at all, including the theater in Aurora, Colorado, which was home to a mass shooting. The U.S. Military even offered warnings regarding the movie to personnel. This fear extended to the movie’s American premiere, where it received extra security for the green carpet. Another aspect absent from the event was the press. All red-carpet reporters had been disinvited.
Even if this was intended as a security precaution, it couldn’t help but reflect badly on Warner Bros., especially since it came after Phoenix’s interview walk-out. Whether or not they intended it to, the cancellation of red carpet coverage made it seem like they were running away from being asked further questions on those matters everyone was so interested to hear more on. As every studio who has put a bad movie under a hefty press embargo knows, hiding a title from journalistic access and discussion is seldom a good idea.
Joker’s Controversy Defines The Narrative
Joker has been defined by its controversy, from the very moment the movie was announced. This was always going to be part of the cycle. How could it not be given the history of the character, the fandom, and decades of Hollywood dealing with the consequences of on-screen violence? It took a lot to get Joker to where it is, from the deification of the "tragic method actor" narrative that haunts Heath Ledger's legacy to the way the character has been wrongly blamed for mass shootings to the very concept of the romantic villain in pop culture. Frankly, it would have been a surprise if, with everything surrounding it, the Joker press tour had gone smoothly.
Still, it is disappointing that this is what has soaked up most of the press attention and not the film itself. After all, Joker won the Golden Lion and is a major Oscar contender that's set to break the bank at the box office this weekend, but the news cycle has been dominated by the scandal, awkwardness, and politically questionable rhetoric. Regardless of what people think of the movie, at the very least, it deserves to be discussed on its own merits and not solely as part of wider fears or industry gossip. It's yet to be seen if that will have a tangible impact on the film's commercial success. Those box office projections are very strong and the movie certainly has enough glowing reviews to keep it in the awards season game. But given how messy this press tour has been, if nothing else, Joker can stand as a testament of what not to do for future promotional cycles.
- Joker (2019) release date: Oct 04, 2019