Rated 2.0

This new take on DC’s Clown Prince of Crime will go down as one of the year’s big missed opportunities. Director Todd Phillips, mostly known for his Hangover movies, apparently got the green light to do whatever he wanted with the Joker mythos. He managed to get Joaquin Phoenix, pretty much perfect casting, to sign on for the title role. This was a chance to tell a dark origin story from the Joker’s point of view. Phillips blows this chance. Phoenix is otherworldly good as Arthur Fleck, a severely troubled clown and standup comedy wannabe—and mama’s boy—with a condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably at inappropriate moments. He physically and mentally disappears into the part, to the point where you may become concerned for the actor’s well-being. He accomplishes this in a film that has a major identity crisis. When we first see Fleck, he’s dressed as a clown, spinning a sign and generally having a good time. He promptly gets his ass kicked, and not for the last time. We then see him in therapy and living in poverty with his quirky mother (Frances Conroy). Fleck slowly but surely starts to lose all sense of his humanity as he grows into a criminal monster. We’ve seen all these plot mechanics before in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Heck, Phillips even casts a game Robert De Niro to play a talk show host that winds up being a nod to Miller’s David Letterman riff (David Endocrine) in The Dark Knight Returns. At its most derivative, the screenplay echoes A Beautiful Mind, filmed in a way that feels like a hackneyed Shyamalan twist. In the end, it’s an unoriginal film only partially buoyed by an incredible performance.