Joker is a revisionist take on the origin of the popular Batman villain from The Hangover director Todd Phillips. It takes as its clear inspiration two of Martin Scorsese's best films: Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Todd Phillips is no Martin Scorsese, though. He's not the biggest problem anyway. No, that honor goes to Joaquin Phoenix, the star who, on the surface, would appear to be the movie's biggest strength. What should have been the most electrifying comic book picture of the year is actually one of its most shocking duds.
Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a mentally ill Gotham resident who is slowly driven mad by what he views as the city's moral decay. (There's the Taxi Driver part.) Aside from his psychological issues, his mother (Frances Conroy) is ailing, he gets fired from a dead-end job as a clown-for-hire, and his aspirations to become a stand-up comedian are going nowhere. Arthur is obsessed with a late night TV host, Murray Franklin, played by Robert DeNiro. (There's The King of Comedy reference, with DeNiro now in the Jerry Lewis role). Joker tracks what happens when these factors, plus a belief that local millionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) is his father, conspire to push him over the edge.
Cribbing from Scorsese's work happens throughout Joker, to the point where it starts to feel like plagiarism. In one scene, Arthur imagines himself as a guest on Franklin's show, sitting in a chair and pretending to laugh at the host's jokes. That mimics a sequence from The King of Comedy, as does an eventual tense interaction between the comedian and his fan.
Arthur additionally makes a journey to criminality that follows a path similar to that of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Socially awkward loner comes to believe the city has it in for him, wants to wash away everything he hates about it, etc. Instead of an empathetic teenage prostitute, Arthur has a single-mom neighbor, Sophie (Deadpool 2's Zazie Beetz, who is utterly wasted). Taking inspiration from Scorsese's work would be fine, if Phillips did anything new with it. He doesn't. In fact, there really isn't much plot in Joker at all, just a series of familiar-feeling scenes in which we watch Arthur gradually lose his grip on sanity.
When Joaquin Phoenix was signed to play the Joker, it was big news. He's an immensely talented, live-wire actor, so putting him in the role seemed like an inspired idea, especially since it requires someone who can fill the shoes of Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, and Heath Ledger. Phoenix is a Method actor, though, and one who – despite his gift – still needs a director to shape his creative impulses so they fit the story. Phillips seemingly just lets him go, and that proves to be a mistake. Huge chunks of the film involve the actor frantically twitching, making faces, and dancing around. It's so incessantly mannered that I never saw the character, just the performance. Saying Phoenix's work is self-indulgent would not be out of line, except that Phillips had the duty of reining his star in – a duty he abdicated. Because he's in every single scene, the permission to run free prevents any true dramatic momentum from being generated.
Joker is also marred by a pointless nihilistic streak. The picture has nothing of substance to say about loners or violence in our society. Cruelty is simply presented for its own sake. Since we're ostensibly supposed to sympathize with a guy who becomes a depraved killer, there's something a little disturbing about that.
Grittier, R-rated comic book movies like this and Deadpool are a welcome variation from what we normally get. Many comics are dark, and cinematic adaptations should reflect that. Joker has good intentions on that front, yet an exceptionally faulty execution.
out of four
Joker is rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images. The running time is 2 hours and 2 minutes.