Joker, a 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, in that it wants to be a DC movie using a DC icon without really existing within DC lore.
Could that have been OK? Sure, but the movie builds to a conclusion that frustratingly teases the great Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel.
So, why not do a film that tells the story of The Dark Knight Returns entirely from the Joker’s perspective, instead of dancing around Batman lore? The experience of watching this left me, ultimately, unfulfilled. Many borrowed elements from comic books, Bernie Goetz, Death Wish and Martin Scorsese movies are thrown into the pot, resulting in a muddy work that feels oddly routine given the crazed and wonderful performance at its center.
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 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.
Is the violence too much? That’s based on your personal threshold for mayhem in movies. I was appropriately shocked at times by how visceral the movie got and can say this goes well beyond your typical Avengers movie or the playfully crazed violence of something like, say, Deadpool. The violence in this movie is ugly, extremely downbeat, and leaves you with knots in your stomach.
Phoenix does a thing with the hysterical laughing early in the movie, when he shows Fleck struggling as it hurts his throat and challenges his smoker’s lungs. As the film progresses, it appears that the Joker’s hysterical laugh muscles are strengthening, a sort of training for his future criminal career where that laughter will cause no pain and flow out of him with no need for lozenges afterward.
Touches like these, and depicting Gotham very much like a pre-Giuliani New York City in the ’70s—I assure you, folks, that place was a hellhole—are impressive.
The good is ruined by the paint-by-numbers plot. Fleck’s standup comedian aspirations don’t make a whole lot of sense, other than providing a convenient plot device to reach the movie’s predictable finale. Everything with Fleck’s mother plays like a poor man’s Psycho. For a movie that was supposed to be an entirely original approach to the Joker, nothing really feels original other than the spark of creativity Phoenix brings to the enterprise.