“Joker” might bring to mind a caped crusader, but it’s another vigilante, “Taxi Driver’s” Travis Bickle, who provides the movie’s spiritual sire. Joaquin Phoenix’s electric, disturbing performance is thus dogged by history and questions about the “why” of it all – that is, a Joker without Batman – an answer that isn’t really in the cards.
There is a constituency eager to blame Hollywood for contributing to societal ills that includes plenty of dishonest brokers. That said, the Joker character and “Taxi Driver” both come with unwelcome asterisks – the first in its association with the 2012 mass shooting in Aurora, Col., the latter in John Hinckley Jr.’s assassination attempt on President Reagan.
“Joker” plunges back to that earlier era, focusing on a Gotham City that resembles a nightmare vision of New York circa the early 1980s, mixed with elements of the pre-Batman TV show “Gotham.” As for the title role, Phoenix’s take owes an obvious debt to Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning role, while putting his own spin on an origin story that casts Joker, nee Arthur Fleck, as the kind of brooding loner who only garners attention via a link to tragedy.
Director Todd Phillips is best known for “The Hangover” trilogy, and has seemingly overcompensated for his comedy roots by delivering a movie virtually devoid of humor.
While that’s understandable given the context, the unrelenting gloom and prevailing sense of dread becomes almost oppressive, perhaps especially for those who aren’t steeped in the mythology. (At the risk of stating the obvious, this R-rated film is not for children, although a parade of related Halloween costumes seems sadly inevitable.)
Ultimately, “Joker” is about the making of a monster, told in a manner that seeks to evoke empathy without rooting for him – a fine line, underscoring a level of ambition beyond what’s usually associated with comic-book-adjacent fare.
When the movie opens, Arthur is working as a part-time clown, and immediately brutally beaten up. “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” he asks a social worker.
Not that craziness is a complete stranger to Arthur’s life, living as he does with his mother (Frances Conroy) in a dingy apartment, while harboring wince-inducing dreams of becoming a standup comedian. Together, they watch a Johnny Carson-like latenight host played by Robert De Niro – a dual callback to the actor’s collaborations with director Martin Scorsese in “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy.”
Arthur’s pursuit of happiness comes with several impediments, including a condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably at inappropriate moments. Yet it’s another random act of violence that kicks the story into motion, unleashing resentments bubbling not just within the man but beneath the surface of this dystopian society.
There is a demonstrable appetite for R-rated material with comic-book ties, although the more popular entries within that category, “Deadpool” and “Logan,” are very different animals than this one.
The Joker clearly harbors a singular place in Batman lore; still, it’s not too much to ask – and more than just being a scold – for justification of an exercise that places such a villain front and center, especially when there is so little light or goodness to balance the darkness.
Phoenix’s live-wire work alone makes “Joker” an intriguing film, if one that has been conspicuously overpraised amid the irrational exuberance of film festivals.
Advance criticism – including an expression of concern by the Aurora families – has yielded pleas from those associated with the film to watch and judge on its merits, which is a reasonable request.
Having done so, the movie produces a split verdict – eliciting admiration for parts of what “Joker” achieves, without allaying questions about the value, and wisdom, of opening this deck. As for anyone expressing surprise that the movie has triggered controversy about its potential impact, to that reaction, at least, it’s hard to keep a straight face.
“Joker” premieres Oct. 4 in the US and is rated R. The film is being released by Warner Bros., like CNN, a unit of WarnerMedia.