It would have been a brave, smart choice to cast Joaquin Phoenix in the next film incarnation of Batman, and he could have made the kind of bold acting choices that distinguished past Jokers Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger without worrying about the more serious grounding of the story. However, turning Phoenix's Clown Prince of Crime into the protagonist of his own movie makes it tougher for the actor to embody a destructive force of nature, and director Todd Phillips' Joker doesn't have the depth or clarity of vision to match up to its star's performance.
It's quite a performance, though, and Phoenix carries the movie by fully committing to the role of mentally unstable loner Arthur Fleck, destined to become Gotham City's greatest supervillain. For all its pretenses to gritty realism, Joker is definitely a comic-book movie, set not in New York City but in Gotham, home to Arkham State Hospital and billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), father of Bruce. Set in 1981, Joker is obviously influenced heavily by 1970s and early '80s cinema, in particular the two Martin Scorsese films (Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy) most frequently cited as its inspirations.
At the same time, this is a funhouse, comic-book version of those dark dramas, less concerned with tackling serious social issues than with trolling superhero fans, and distorting and perverting the stories and characters they know and love. Here, Thomas Wayne is a callous, out-of-touch one-percenter, and Joker offers reflections of other elements of Batman mythology, in a sort of perfunctory nod to the source material that the filmmakers don't seem to have much interest in. Arthur is a nihilist who doesn't care about anything or anybody, and the movie largely takes the same stance. There's no one to root for, and the only likable character is little more than a plot device for a weak, unearned twist as the movie heads toward its climax.
At least Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver don't attempt to make Arthur into a hero, although some misguided viewers may still see him that way. In the beginning, he's somewhat sympathetic, a meek weirdo not long out of a stay in a mental institution, just trying to hold down a job and care for his ailing mother Penny (Frances Conroy). He dreams of being a beloved entertainer, but instead works as the world's saddest clown-for-hire, picked on by his co-workers and mugged by young hooligans while twirling a sign for a going-out-of-business sale. The social worker assigned to help him transition back into society barely pays attention to him, and even his mother belittles his dreams of becoming a stand-up comic.
Arthur is clearly delusional, as illustrated by his disastrous attempts at stand-up, and he has such a lack of self-awareness that it's difficult to even pity him after a certain point. He creepily stalks his pretty neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz, given little to do) and becomes increasingly prone to violence, acquiring a handgun and using it to lash out against the people who mock and belittle him. Arthur's journey toward full-on sociopathy is inevitable (and obvious to anyone who has even a passing familiarity with the DC comics character) but plodding, and the movie doesn't really erupt into nasty violence until it's nearly over.
Before then, Phillips focuses on Arthur's slow descent into further madness. But while Phoenix is suitably unsettling, with his emaciated frame and genuinely haunting laugh, Arthur isn't a particularly interesting character. Although this movie gives the Joker more backstory than any previous cinematic incarnation, it does so mostly in service of setting up plot twists, from Arthur's connection to the Wayne family to his lifelong love for TV talk-show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, playing the flip side of his King of Comedy role). Arthur himself is a collection of behavioral quirks and questionable wardrobe choices, rather than a fully realized person. He has more layers than any other character in the movie, but that's only because everyone else is completely one-dimensional.
Phoenix is still fascinating to watch, however, and Phillips knows how to mimic the surface elements of his influences, creating a grimy, volatile Gotham that could be the New York City of HBO's The Deuce or a slightly smoothed-over version of a '70s crime drama. There's a lot of style to Joker, even if it's blunt and excessive, and it certainly doesn't look like any other superhero movie. Phillips' Gotham isn't like any previous onscreen version, and it's impressive how far he pushes the movie beyond the boundaries of what DC (or Marvel) has done in film before. Joker is a genuine risk, even if the result is hollow, and its greatest accomplishment could be paving the way for more experimentation in future superhero movies.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy and Brett Cullen, Joker opens Friday nationwide.