Todd Phillips really wants you to take him seriously. After decades of low brow studio comedies like Old School, Due Date and the Hangover trilogy, Phillips decided enough was enough and hitched his wagon to the white hot superhero genre. But not in the way you might expect. He wanted to make Joker. Since Heath Ledger’s iconic and Oscar-winning turn as the clown prince of crime more than a decade ago in The Dark Knight, the Joker has somewhat languished in the public eye. With Ben Affleck leaving the Batman behind after two wretched movies and Jared Leto successfully leaving a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, the opportunity seemed ripe for a different sort of take on Batman’s archvillain. Enter Phillips, who alongside with co-screenwriter Scott Silver seek to reimagine an origin story for the one villain who has never really had one.
The Joker we find here is Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a down-on-his-luck hired clown and aspiring stand-up comedian with none of the social grace or skill to make either work. Set in a grim and gritty early 1980s New York (whoops, I mean Gotham City) in the midst of a garbage strike, Fleck cares for his mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), and laughs uncontrollably during moments of stress and anxiety. Cuts to the department of mental health He’s been shunned from all walks of life (and that’s before he’s fired for bringing a gun to a gig in order to protect himself), and can only find solace in the glow of the television as it broadcasts a talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). All Fleck wants is to be good enough to be a guest on Murray’s show one day. And he’ll do just about anything to make that happen.
Prior to its surprise victory at the Venice Film Festival, this supervillain origin story seemed like a curiosity more than anything. It was undeniably strange to hear that the director of the Starsky and Hutch remake was making a serious R-rated Joker movie starring Joaquin Phoenix of all people. It seems like such an odd choice on the face of things, but Phoenix is such an undeniably talented and relentlessly intense actor that there could be something here with the right material. And Phoenix does what he can, thinning out to a shocking degree (think a slightly less insane version of Christian Bale’s body in The Machinist and using his natural features (the scar on his lip, his messed up left shoulder) to magnify the discomfort you feel just looking at him. And he’s got the laugh down, uncontrolled and choking, often bordering on crying, alienating him from the rest of the world. He’s very much a one man show, with everyone else essentially existing to fuel his simmering rage. As a result, the likes of Conroy and Zazie Beetz (as his neighbor/love interest) are rarely-there sketches more than characters. And De Niro is all wrong for a genial Johnny Carson type, not particularly funny nor gregarious. That’s purposeful, as it piles onto Fleck’s fractured sense of self, but it doesn’t quite work as a performance in its own right. The trailers and marketing material made it out to be a rather blatant cross-section of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, and that's exactly what it turns out to be. Phillips didn’t hire De Niro for nothing; it’s a clear nod to both of those films. He, alongside a weirdly brusque and confrontational Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) represent the establishment in a way that makes no one want to stand up for the establishment. The movie’s deck is stacked against them, making it tough to swallow the idea that it isn’t a lionization of violent vigilante justice meted out by a deranged killer who’s really just a misunderstood maladjusted loner.