(R / 122 mins)
Overview: 'Joker' centers around the iconic arch nemesis and is an original, standalone fictional story not seen before on the big screen. Phillips' exploration of Arthur Fleck, who is indelibly portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, is of a man struggling to find his way in Gotham's fracturedsociety.
A clown-for-hire by day, he aspires to be a stand-up comic at night...but finds the joke always seems to be on him. Caught in a cyclical existence between apathy and cruelty, Arthur makes one bad decision that brings about a chain reaction of escalating events in this gritty character study.
Verdict: Long before 'Joker' pays homage to two of the classic New York films of the nineteen-seventies and eighties, 'Taxi Driver' and 'The King of Comedy,' it relies on the fictitious setting of Gotham City and the pretext of a comic-book story to evoke real-life crime — and it alludes to them from a perspective so narrow and destructive as to resemble not intention but obliviousness.
The result is a movie of a cynicism so vast and pervasive as to render the viewing experience even emptier than its slapdash aesthetic does.
The first dramatic scene in 'Joker,' which is set in a grungy and turbulent New Yor... I mean, Gotham City, seemingly around 1980 (judging from details of décor), shows a clown, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), on a busy street in midtown, working as a sign twirler for a music store.
A group of teen-agers of color hassle him and steal his sign. He chases them into a garbage-strewn alley (the city is in the midst of an apocalyptic garbage strike), where one kid hits Arthur in the face with the sign and knocks him down.
Then the whole group swarms him, pummels him, kicks him, and leaves him bruised and bleeding and sobbing, alone, in the filthy alley. The crime alluded to is the attack wrongly attributed to five young men mislabeled as the Central Park Five — an attack on an isolated and vulnerable white person by a group of young people of color.
The scene waves away history and says, in effect, that it may not have been those five, but there was another group out there wreaking havoc; they’re not figments of a demagogue’s hate-filled imagination—here they are, and they’re the spark of all the gory action that follows.
What follows, soon thereafter, is another scene of brutality: Arthur, whose beating is the talk of the locker room at the clown agency for which he works, is handed a gun by a blustery colleague named Randall (Glenn Fleshler).
When Arthur is assaulted on the subway by three young men (whites, in suits), he pulls out the gun and fires — and even pursues one of the men onto the platform in order to shoot him dead.
It’s an evocation of the shooting, in 1984, by Bernhard Goetz, of four teen-agers in a subway who, Goetz believed, were about to rob him. They were four black teen-agers, and Goetz, after his arrest, made racist remarks.
In 'Joker,' the director, Todd Phillips (who wrote the script with Scott Silver), whitewashes Goetz’s attack, eliminating any racial motive and turning it into an act of self-defense gone out of control.
Overall, the thematic incoherence of 'Joker' is inseparable from its aesthetic emptiness. Phoenix, alternately brooding and exulting, dancing extravagantly in his underwear or in a resplendent costume or seething with rage, cringing with horror, or camping it up with an affected accent, isn’t so much unhinged as unmotivated and, to all appearances, undirected.
What he delivers is less a performance than a display of his bag of actorly tricks—and they’re pretty wonderful, but they adorn a character who’s an empty framework, and, to all appearances, empty by design, for fear of alienating the target audience.
The movie’s parodies of 'Taxi Driver' and 'The King of Comedy' are obvious; so are its pastiches of the designs and events of those movies’ times. But the crucial parody, the crucial mockery, the work of which 'Joker' comes off as a callously commercial imitation, is 'Black Panther' — a comic-book-based movie that infuses its framework with rigorously conceived and boldly assertive political visions to go with its elaborate world-building.
Simply put, 'Joker' is a wannabe movie that also wants to be all things to all viewers, that imitates the notion of adding substance while only subtracting it (ie: 'Joker' is a viewing experience of a rare, numbing emptiness).