FILM REVIEW – JOKER. With Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen. Written by Todd Phillips & Scott Silver. Directed by Todd Phillips. Rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images. 121 minutes.
One of the most anticipated films of the year, JOKER is likely to divide moviegoers and critics alike. It may well develop a strong cult following, but for many it will come across as overwrought and disappointing. In spite of an intense performance by Joaquin Phoenix, the movie can’t overcome director/co-writer Todd Phillips’ character arc for him where the protagonist turning into a homicidal sociopath is what passes for a satisfying ending.
The movie is set in the “Batman” universe but focuses on Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) who works as a party clown for hire and aspires to be a comedian. The location is Gotham City and the time is unclear but from various cues seems to be sometime in the ‘70s or ‘80s. For three-quarters of the film’s two-hour running time we watch Fleck be abused and humiliated. Spinning a sign in front of a store, teens steal the sign, beat him with it, and then savagely attack him. The result is his boss telling him he must produce the sign, or it will be docked from his pay.
His mother (Frances Conroy), is a doddering old woman who keeps writing to businessman Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) asking for help. One of the few things brightening their bitter lives is Murray Franklin’s (Robert DeNiro) TV talk show. Fleck dreams of performing on Franklin’s show and gets his “break” in as cruel a manner as possible. Fleck also becomes attached to Sophie (Zazie Beetz), a single mom who lives down the hall. There are a number of twists in the story – none to be revealed here – that brings us to the final half hour where Fleck, having hit bottom, assumes the identity of the Joker.
The film has a number of problems. Its depiction of Gotham City is beyond bleak. Except for Sophie and the children we see (including future Batman Bruce Wayne played by Dante Pereira-Olson), everyone is evil or indifferent. There are two scenes where total strangers brutally attack Fleck, simply because they can. The city is in the midst of a garbage strike, so piles of refuse – and the rats it attracts – are the constant background. And Thomas Wayne, who is running for mayor, declares that those who do not help themselves are “clowns.”
As a psychological study of watching Fleck become so destroyed that it causes him to go mad, the film is of interest, but ultimately it makes Fleck the hero of the story by not providing any sympathetic viewpoint but his. It will be noted that the movie owes something to two DeNiro movies by director Martin Scorsese, “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy.” Phoenix’s Fleck is kin to the De Niro characters in both films, both the borderline psychotic Travis Bickle of the former and the obsessive aspiring comedian Rupert Pupkin of the latter.
Director Phillips, best known for the inane “Hangover” movies, wants to show he can be serious and profound, but has bitten off more than he can chew here. His “Joker” is slow and ponderous, with moments that will work for some but not enough win over the general audience. If the intent is to pit Phoenix’s Joker against a newly cast Batman, this may serve as an overlong prologue. On its own, though, “Joker” is a disappointing gag that falls flat.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.