Origin stories are baked into the mix of comic book super heroes—I’ve seen poor little Bruce Wayne watch his parents get shot and Peter Parker get stung by a radioactive spider more times than I can count. Villains can also get origin stories—we’ve seen versions of that in Suicide Squad and X-Men. But Joker is something completely different.
This is an origin story about a notorious DC Comics villain—a ridiculous character who dresses like a clown and giddily revels in violence and mayhem—treated with all the seriousness of a gritty psychological drama. Instead of taking its cues from Tim Burton, or even Christopher Nolan, director Todd Phillips (The Hangover) takes his cues from Taxi Driver, A Clockwork Orange, Fight Club, and, most explicitly, The King of Comedy. I suppose this was inevitable, as comic book movies have gotten more and more self-serious and the Joker character, in particular, has moved from camp (Cesar Romero) to horror (Heath Ledger), but I find the whole enterprise wearying and a little ridiculous.
Does the world really need another movie about a mentally ill loner who snaps? And, in particular, does it need one that comes with all the fanfare of a DC Comics “event” picture, one that will bring young men in to the theater to revel in its loser-turned-powerful-vigilante narrative?
Frankly, I find it difficult to evaluate Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Joker, who goes by Arthur Fleck for most of the film. There’s a lot going on there. The actor lost a ton of weight for the role and he holds in his stomach to create a grotesque concave effect. (Grotesque is a buzzword for this film.) His hair is long and straggly. His face is lined. And then there’s his mannerisms, a never-ending series of tics and spasms. Arthur has a condition brought on by a brain injury where he sometimes laughs uncontrollably, especially when he’s agitated or nervous. It’s a sick, joyless laugh and Phoenix wields it best when Arthur attempts standup—a lifelong ambition—for the first time. He gets up on stage and begins to chortle and the audience is confused—is this part of the bit?—and then his laughter is mingled with tears of frustration and gasped snippets of dialogue as he tries to spit out a joke.
Later, when Arthur begins to transform into the Joker—taking his violent, cathartic revenge on a society that has trampled all over him—the laugh becomes more intentional and his body language more fluid. While not quite a merry prankster a la A Clockwork Orange’s Alex, he does begin to find some joy in his own villainy. Phoenix, a brilliant actor, is fully committed to this part—and his commitment is what makes the film palatable. But I still wasn’t sure if it was great acting or just a lot of acting.
Before he becomes the Joker, Arthur lives with his sickly mother (Frances Conroy) in a small, cramped apartment in Gotham City. He works as a clown-for-hire and worships the Johnny Carson-style talk show host Murray Franklin (played, in a meta bit of casting, by King of Comedy’s Robert De Niro). His greatest ambition is to get on the show. Suffice it to say, be careful what you wish for.
Joker is made with an undeniable amount of skill. Phillips clearly worships Martin Scorsese (his War Dogs was another film that toed the line between rip-off and homage) and he mimics his idol pretty expertly, right down to the extreme and sometimes sickening violence. But the thing is, we already have Taxi Driver and King of Comedy—and they’re freaking great. The notion of doing a comic book version of those films is nothing more than a gimmick—one that left a sour taste in my mouth.