The origin story for the Clown Prince of Crime, whose history is often as fluid as his sanity, is firmly established in Joker. Loosely remaking Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, director Todd Phillips riffs on the Martin Scorsese classics without revamping them. Star Joaquin Phoenix is contorted and damaged as Batman’s notorious archnemesis, but never approaches Heath Ledger’s brilliant performance in 2008’s The Dark Knight. Joker masquerades as prestige film without revealing emotional, political, or intellectual depth behind its clown-shaped mask.
Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is a down-on-his-luck party clown and aspiring comedian in ‘80s Gotham City (think of New York City at its worst and then multiply that by several ravenous mutant rats). He lives with and cares for his mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), and adores Gotham-based late-night host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro).
Arthur, who is mentally ill, relies on a social services program for his medication. When the program is cut due to budgetary issues, Arthur loses access to the medication. Shortly after, Arthur is mugged by a group of teenagers while sign spinning for a local business, and his co-worker Randall (Glenn Fleshler) gifts him a gun. When Arthur is fired for showing the gun at work, his mother’s insults and his obsession with Murray cause him to reach a tipping point.
Phillips lingers on Arthur dancing, smoking, and committing violence, but never offers a Save the Cat moment to humanize the supervillain-in-the-making. Early on, Arthur entertains a child on a bus by playfully making faces at him, but the child’s mother snaps at him to leave the kid alone. This unrealistic reaction to an everyday situation doesn’t generate sympathy so much as it forces unnatural drama.
Arthur erupts into uproarious laughter at Randall’s cruel jokes about the height of his co-worker Gary (Leigh Gill). (I relish the day that a little person can appear in a television show or movie without immediate and repeated reference to their height.) He declines to stop a group of drunk men from harassing a young woman on the subway. He succumbs to recurring violent urges. The system may have failed Arthur, but Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver never establish him as a character to root for.
Phoenix, who appears on a shortlist of the best actors of his generation, is capital-A acting. A combination of Ledger’s deranged agent of chaos and Cesar Romero’s (of the 1960s Batman television series) zany prankster, the performance is overstated at best and goofy at worst. Phoenix played a damaged loner caring for his aging mother in You Were Never Really Here, but Joker lacks the quiet physicality and nuanced psychology of Lynne Ramsay’s muted character study about the cycle of violence.
Cinematographer Lawrence Sher and talented colorist Jill Bogdanowicz supply Joker with its ‘70s-inspired saturation, which resembles a cheap television show more than Mean Streets. Hamfisted fan service and an apparent disregard for details debase the film’s case as the best comic book movie since The Dark Knight. One instance of Joker ignoring the “how” features Arthur booking a gig at a lavish comedy club, not an open mic night, without a successful comedy career. Later, he accesses patient medical records without credentials. Gotham City isn’t required to follow HIPAA, it appears.
The movie feints toward underlying themes of income inequality, access to mental health services, and classism without truly exploring them. When a character confronts Arthur about his clown makeup, he replies, “I don’t believe any of that. I don’t believe in anything.” Appropriately, neither does Joker.