When Martin Scorsese directed “Taxi Driver” in 1976 and “The King of Comedy” in 1982, he was commenting directly on the contemporary world and on the damaged individuals trying to survive in it. When director Todd Phillips chose to set “Joker” in a 1981 that very much resembles those films (it’s Gotham City as “Fun City”) and with a character that seems to be an amalgam of Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin from those two classics, he seems to be doing so because he’s such a Scorsese fan.
After all, if you’re going to make a film about working-class people being crushed by the wealthy, and about a sociopath who inspires violent followers after committing crimes and going on television, 2019 is just sitting here.
Viewers will no doubt disagree about whether or not “Joker” should have been a period piece, but there’s no question that it’s an exquisitely crafted one. Cinematographer Lawrence Sher (“Godzilla: King of the Monsters”) and supervising art director Laura Ballinger (“The Greatest Showman”) obviously studied not just those two Scorsese movies but also “The French Connection,” “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three,” “Shaft” and any number of films where New York is depicted as a hellscape of graffiti and garbage (Gotham City’s sanitation workers are on strike), where wet streets reflect the sleazy neon of porno-theater marquees.
DC Comics fans will no doubt want to know how canonical the film is, and without getting too far into spoilers, the answer is: More than it initially lets on. And if Phillips is borrowing from countless movies here, he also lifts an entire section of Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” for good measure.
Is this an origin story? Oh, is it ever. And does Phillips (who co-wrote with Scott Silver, “The Fighter”) come up with anything more interesting in Joker’s backstory than “because mental illness and child abuse”? He does not.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, a clown and would-be stand-up comic who lives in a grungy apartment with his invalid mother, Penny (Frances Conroy). Arthur has been institutionalized, and now has weekly meetings with a city-assigned psychiatrist (until, of course, the city cuts the budget). After a group of kids mug him while he’s on the clock, a fellow clown gives Arthur a gun; when it comes tumbling out of his baggy pants during a performance at a children’s hospital, he loses the gig.
His life goes from bad to worse: He murders three stockbrokers on the subway and inadvertently inspires mobs of harlequin-painted protesters after mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen, “True Detective”) refers to the city’s have-nots as “clowns” in a TV interview. But this act of violence makes Arthur feel seen for the first time. And after popular late-night talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, because who else?) plays clips of Arthur’s terrible stand-up routine just to mock him, Arthur comes to a breaking point.
If you strip the Joker and his nearly 80-year history as a cultural icon out of this film, as well as all the 1970s movie homages, there’s not a whole lot left except for Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, and it’s the kind of turn that’s destined to be divisive. If you like an actor who disappears into a role and effects what appears to be organic human behavior on the screen, this is not your jam. Phoenix puts the “perform” in “performance”; he’s never not twitching or laughing (it’s part of Arthur’s psychiatric condition) or hyperventilating or dancing. Some will love it and some will look askance, but he’s definitely doing the kind of work that fits the tone of the film.
The broadness of Phoenix’s work allows the rest of the ensemble — particularly Conroy, Zazie Beetz as a single-mom neighbor, and MVP character actors like Bill Camp, Shea Whigham and Brian Tyree Henry — to dial it down and give effectively human-size performances.
The number of times in the film when we’re clearly meant to recognize another movie or a bit of Batman lore seems to be of a piece with Phillips’ general distrust of the audience; there’s a great reveal that pops up unexpectedly, but like a magician who thinks you’re not paying attention, Phillips and editor Jeff Groth (“War Dogs”) go back and walk you through it, step by step, just in case anyone in the back might have missed it.
The politics of “Joker” are similarly wobbly; web pundits on all sides of the spectrum will no doubt fish out this idea or that line of dialogue to declaim what “Joker” is “really” about, which ultimately means it’s not really about much of anything at all. It will be tempting for some to declare this the first art film based on a DC or Marvel property, but while it certainly represents a bit of a departure and something of a risk, “Joker” is ultimately grim-and-gritty comic book nihilism jacked up to the nth degree, wrapped up in a convincing but ultimately hollow simulacra of better, smarter movies.