Joaquin Phoenix gave the best performance of this decade in 2012 for Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master; it’s worth getting out of the way the fact that he is one of our greatest living actors. Even when not working with the best directors, Phoenix can still give a memorable performance that eclipses the rest of a film. Unfortunately, that’s the case in Joker, a revisionist take on the iconic Batman villain. This is a comic book movie that fancies itself a trenchant social critique of our chaotic times, but it’s all sound and fury, signifying nothing.
But back to that performance. Phoenix is introduced as a clown named Arthur Fleck, who is rented out by various businesses to debase himself and twirl signs out front. When we first see him he’s already cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, and his mental state only falls apart further from there. This an unfortunate choice, as it’s hard to understand what makes Arthur tick when he practically lives on another planet. Phoenix, sporting a terrible pageboy haircut and looking even gaunter than he did in The Master, oozes unbridled menace, even when he’s in the relatively calming domain of his social worker. Arthur sees her once a week, part of the aftermath of a past commitment to Arkham Asylum, though it’s unclear what precipitated the stay. He’s also supposedly on multiple psychiatric medicines, though it’s unclear if he’s even taking them by the time the film opens.
Joaquin Phoenix is at the top of his game in the brutal origin story Joker, but the film and its lazy screenplay aren’t up to his standards.
Arthur bemoans the state of Gotham, which is shuddering under the weight of rampant inequality and poverty. Amid the turmoil, gangs of teens go wilding out; one group beats him up and steals his sign, getting him into hot water at the clown agency. When he’s not writing homicidal/suicidal thoughts in his journal that masquerade as “jokes” for his “stand-up act,” he sets his attention on Sophie (Zazie Beetz, woefully underused), a woman living in his building with her young daughter. Outside of his rent-a-clown work, Arthur spends his days in his filthy apartment (so basically, a regular New York City flat) with his mother (a similarly underused Frances Conroy), where they regularly watch a late-night talk show starring Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, acting by numbers).
Martin Scorsese was originally slated to produce the film, but he backed out early in production due to the time requirements of The Irishman. Without Scorsese as a creative participant, director Todd Phillips and co-screenwriter Scott Silver do the next best thing: they crib shamelessly from some of his best work, particularly Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1983). But the re-purpose feels neutered and inessential. Arthur seethes with rage at the people who don’t like him because he’s a creep, but he doesn’t really have any thoughts on society the way Travis Bickle did. The King of Comedy’s Rupert ends up looking like a hard-working comic-in-the-making compared to Phoenix’s Arthur, whose first attempt at an open-mic night is marred when he can’t stop his wretched (and retching) laughs. Scorsese’s film was a disturbing commentary on the way we deify celebrities, but Joker doesn’t have any grand thoughts on celebrity or envy. Arthur just wants to tell jokes and have people like him.
Phillips and his cinematographer, Lawrence Sher, film Joker with a constantly moving handheld camera that’s a clear departure from nearly every comic book movie to date. Occasionally the camera work is thrilling, but it’s also often tedious, and there are moments where the camera starts to shake in an otherwise still scene, as if the operator was trying to remind the audience that the movie is edgy. Everything is shot with a sickly yellow sheen — a lazy signifier of a ‘serious movie’ and ‘something in 1970s-era New York (or Gotham, whatever).’ Viewers living in certain big cities will get the chance to see Joker’s nauseating color scheme in all its glory with special 70mm engagements.
Still, though he’s often over the top, it’s hard to look away from Phoenix’s performance. He can be insufferable in the first hour, but winds up a more compelling actor in the second hour when everything starts to fall apart. He’s closer to the Joker as we know him at that point — a chaotic force for evil, rather than a self-pitying weirdo with mommy issues. The maudlin sentimentality that occasionally interrupts Phoenix’s bursts of looniness is completely eradicated at that point, and despite the film’s cynical adoption of contemporary politics, it’s refreshing in stretches to see this material treated in such a diametrically opposite way from most comic book films. There’s no hint of Marvel’s Tradition of Quality, and even the sheen of other DC movies is absent; for better or worse, Joker has a look and feel all its own. It’s tempting to celebrate the film as the first of a recent spate of comic book movies that subverts the now-standard template, but Joker’s many failings outweigh an intriguing performance from Phoenix. He may be the best we have now, but even he can’t prop up this stinker.
This article was published as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.