Early hype that pegged “Joker” as a “King of Comedy” retread with “Taxi Driver”-level violence wasn’t far from wrong, but this disturbingly dark throwback is much more than a retro Robert De Niro do-over. In fact, “Joker” is such an original and immersive journey into madness that its distracting comic-book connection could be considered a drawback.
Cynics may be excused for wondering if the primary reason the movie is called “Joker”—as opposed to being about exactly the same sociopath doing the same nasty things under another name—was to rope in a guaranteed audience of comics fans. According to star Joaquin Phoenix in a Vanity Fair interview, he was confused when Todd Phillips pitched the project to him as a heist movie.
Phoenix quoted the director as explaining, “We’re gonna take $55 million from Warner Bros. and do whatever the hell we want.” Would the movie have received as big a budget, gotten as much attention, or be in line to make anywhere near as much at the box-office without that instantly recognizable comic-book moniker?
For a possible answer, think back to last year’s similarly brutal psychological thriller “You Were Never Really Here.” In that equally grim outing, Phoenix brilliantly played a different damaged and murderous loner, albeit one who was a hit man with no showbiz aspirations. He even lived with his mother, same as Joker. Without a DC Universe connection, however, that tragically overlooked gem ended up with a total worldwide gross of only $2.5 million. That’s enough to make any studio exec say, “Send in the clown!”
Phoenix is so shockingly convincing as the physically and mentally brutalized psychotic Arthur Fleck, a.k.a. Joker, the actor may finally be awarded the Oscar he should have won years ago. (Phoenix previously received Best Actor nominations for 2005’s “Walk the Line” and 2012’s “The Master,” and a Supporting Actor nom for 2000’s “Gladiator.”) Watching Arthur contort himself with humiliated frustration as he struggles to keep his manic outbursts in check is almost painful. His uncontrolled cackling at inopportune moments is so obnoxious that he carries an info card to show people who are horrified, angered, or offended by him: “Forgive my laughter. I have a condition.”
Taking seven different medications and seeing a public health counselor once a week clearly isn’t keeping him completely on track, if his creepy personal journal is any indication. His fantasy of transitioning from sign-twirling clown to stand-up comic is hampered by two hindrances: his agonized tics make him frightening, and his material isn’t funny.
Basically, the emaciated and unstable Arthur is hanging onto his version of sanity by such a slender thread that a single setback could snap it. And he’s in for a lot more than one of them. Cue the ominous cello music.
Phoenix’s broken, pathetic, and ultimately homicidal Joker has little but an alter-ego name in common with earlier Jokers Cesar Romero (from the 1960s “Batman” TV show and movie), Jack Nicholson (from Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman”), Heath Ledger (from Christopher Nolan’s 2008 “The Dark Knight”), and Jared Leto (from 2016’s “Suicide Squad”). While Ledger’s portrayal was the most over-the-top vicious, Phoenix brings considerably more depth and real-world believability to the sad, crazy killer.
Arthur’s idol and fantasy surrogate father figure is talk show host Murray Franklin. The fact that Franklin is played by De Niro, whose Rupert Pupkin and Travis Bickle are obvious spiritual antecedents for Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck, smacks of almost arrogantly confident casting. Fortunately, Phoenix more than rises to the challenge of establishing his own fresh identity.
This gritty character study is an unexpectedly successful genre shift for director Phillips, best known for outrageous comedies such as “Old School” and “The Hangover” trilogy. Phillips stylishly chronicles Arthur’s depressing descent into derangement in a way that makes us feel genuine empathy for the villain-as-victim. He also believably recreates the sleazy look and grimy feel of late ’70s-early ’80s, pre-Giuliani New York, even if these garbage-strike mean streets technically are in Gotham City.
The played-straight dramatic screenplay (by Phillips and “The Fighter” writer Scott Silver) gets bonus points for admirably escaping what at first looks like a regrettably predictable plot twist. The writers pull off a similar feat by resolving a credibility-straining relationship, with devastating results.
A simmering city-on-edge, “Kill the Rich” subplot pits “too scared to show their own face” Antifa-style protesters against Gotham’s cops and upper crusters. Wealthy mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne doesn’t exactly calm the waters by snidely noting that “those of us who have made something of ourselves” always will look at those masked agitators as “clowns.” That’s clearly not going to go over well.
Although this snobbishly classist version of Thomas Wayne does serve a plot function, calling him anything else would have worked exactly as well for the story. The movie’s brief appearances by other members of the Wayne family—wife Martha and young son Bruce—feel as hammered in as product placements. Ditto the incident that will set young master Bruce on his crimefighting path, which feels as if it were added as an Easter-egg afterthought.
Basically, placing this movie within the DC Comics universe feels like a stunt that brings too much Bat-baggage to the proceedings. Once Alfred the butler turns up, it’s hard not to wonder if other supporting players like Commissioner Gordon, Robin, or Catwoman will pop in for a quick cameo. That pulls attention from what should be the movie’s fascinating sole focus: a fragile man losing his mind and embracing darkness when everything he loves and his lifelong dream are taken from him.
Parents should be aware that “Joker” is decidedly R-rated, with graphic bloody violence, but that’s consistent with many of the character’s comic-book incarnations over the past few decades. Not-for-little-kids comics featuring the character have been around since Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” and Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke” in the 1980s. A 2008 graphic novel by Brian Azzarello upped the adults-only ante beyond even what happens in the movie, by turning the Joker into a rapist as well as a murderer.
Ideally, this “Joker” will be a one-and-done, instead of the first installment in a franchise. That’s because it’s hard to imagine a sequel that wouldn’t undercut the integrity of the complete story told here. (Also, the age difference would make the Joker almost a senior citizen by the time Bruce could grow up to battle him as Batman.) Forced to carry nearly 80 years of comics history on his bony shoulders, Joaquin Phoenix has created a timeless character who would be unforgettable even without a trademarked name.