The Joker character has had two iconic performances in Batman film adaptations in the past 30 years — Jack Nicholson in 1989’s Batman and Heath Ledger in 2008’s The Dark Knight. However, both were in service of a story revolving around the superhero. The DC Universe, still trying to find its footing overall, continues its exploration of its villains with the origin story Joker.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a man who has a brain condition that causes him to laugh at inappropriate moments. He works as a clown — perhaps in an attempt to mask his condition, lives at home with his ill mother (Frances Conroy), and pines over his neighbor, Sophie (Zazie Beetz).
Arthur is about as big of a social outcast as you could be, and a variety of people take advantage of his vulnerability, including late-night talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), who mocks one of Arthur’s stand-up comedy bits on air. Arthur eventually hits his breaking point, resulting in violent outbursts that inspire others in all the wrong ways.
If you didn’t know that Joker had comic book origins, you might mistake the movie as a cautionary real-world tale. And maybe it still is, as writer/director Todd Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver seem to be commenting on a variety of social issues, including the lack of care for people with a mental illness. The painful sincerity of many of the scenes makes it almost impossible to detach and view it as “just a movie.”
Even though Batman, in the form of Bruce Wayne as a child, makes an appearance, the tone of the film is not comic book at all. Arthur is not some megalomaniac bent on ruling the criminal underworld; he’s a scared, lonely man who never really grew up and doesn’t know how to fit in. He’s not a hero, villain, or even anti-hero; he’s a person to be pitied and reviled in almost equal measure. With the presence of De Niro, there’s an easy comparison to be made with his role as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, but Arthur is even more pathetic than that.
Phoenix’s performance is sure to be divisive. He certainly commits to the role, dropping weight to appear gaunt and using a laugh that’s gratingly effective. But the act wears thin the more the movie goes along, and the lack of sympathetic qualities in the character makes him extremely difficult to watch, much less support.
What you think of Phoenix will likely be what you think of the movie as a whole, as he is in literally every scene. This is somewhat to the detriment of well-known supporting actors like De Niro, Brian Tyree Henry, and Marc Maron, the latter two of whom show up in bit roles not equal to their talents. Beetz gets more play, but her character has almost nothing to do.
Although it has some of the hallmarks of a mainstream movie, there’s little that’s entertaining about Joker. Phoenix’s version of the character is uncomfortable, to say the least, and his off-putting nature will likely not inspire many repeat viewings.