Three-time Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix’s compelling and committed performance fuels the atypical origin story “Joker,” but it can’t quite push the leaden crime drama to cinematic greatness.
Directed by Todd Phillips (“The Hangover” films), the story still firmly ties into Batman lore, but the script from Phillips and Scott Silver (“The Fighter”) isn’t drawn from a particular comic book and eliminates the fantastical superhero trappings.
Although a time period is never specified, the gritty character study looks to be set in the 1970s in fictional Gotham City, which is plagued with familiar real-world problems like economic inequality, social unrest and a sanitation workers strike that has left mounds of rotting garbage piled high on every sidewalk.
Struggling to navigate the trashy, mean streets is Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a low-rent clown who dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian and idolizes local late-night TV host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Arthur lives with and cares for his needy and delusional mother Penny (Frances Conroy), while receiving cut-rate government counseling and taking a sackful of prescriptions for an array of mental illnesses, most notably an unfortunate condition that causes him to burst into loud, uncontrollable laughter when he is upset.
Arthur’s already grim reality gets worse when a gang of teenage thugs beats him up, funding cuts eliminate his social services and his boss fires him. When a trio of sleazy stockbrokers accosts him on the subway, Arthur responds with an outburst of violence that gives him a newfound sense of power and turns him into a twisted symbol of revolution, setting him on course to become the nihilistic future nemesis of The Dark Knight.
Complicated, violent and bleak, “Joker” makes for an effective cautionary tale, on both the individual level – it urges people to handle others with care since you can never truly know who you’re dealing with – and on the societal level – with Arthur bluntly warning that if we leave mentally ill people untreated, abused and shunned, then we shouldn’t be surprised if some of them become a danger not only to themselves but to others.
At the same time, Phillips’ film essentially vilifies mental illness, marginalizing a segment of the population that frankly doesn’t need any more problems.
A powerhouse actor who lost significant weight to create a hauntingly wounded character, Phoenix’s engrossing performance – coupled with Hildur Guðnadóttir’s unsettling score – provides a vast blank canvas of potential for storytelling greatness.
But “Joker” is overly long, thematically murky and narratively uneven, with an unnecessary ending that, like a bad greasepaint job, unforgivingly highlights the film’s flaws rather than concealing them.