Review: Joaquin Phoenix's 'Joker' questions if there's empathy for the devil
Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a clown-for-hire and stand-up comic in 'Joker.' USA TODAY
Featuring a phenomenal and deeply disturbing Joaquin Phoenix, the solo story “Joker” is on the surface the origin of a supervillain but more subtly an exploration of empathy and the personal impact of a society devoid of it.
Co-written and directed by Todd Phillips (“The Hangover” trilogy), it’s a psychological thriller and dark character study that draws inspiration from throwback films like “Taxi Driver,” “Network” and “The King of Comedy” and reflects modern societal divisions but also has the grand ambition of a comic book movie. Except there are no heroes here at all: “Joker” (★★★ out of four; rated R; in theaters nationwide Friday) is at times predictable and too familiar given the source material, yet it splendidly captures the essence of the iconic bad guy as a frighteningly unreliable narrator in the movie’s best moments.
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The film imagines Gotham City circa 1981, as much a haven of antagonism as it ever was, though this version is a more relatable cesspool than Batman’s usual hometown. A garbage strike has trash everywhere and “super” rats running around, crime’s up and morale’s down, though wealthy folks like billionaire mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) and TV talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) live above it all.
The life of Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) has been everything but charmed. Working as a rent-a-clown by day and fostering a nascent stand-up comedy career at night, though not successful at either, he's afflicted with an intermittent, unnatural cackle that literally pains him and is cruelly disdained at every turn. His beloved mother (Frances Conroy) tells him that he’s meant to bring joy and laughter into people’s lives – a weird prophecy for anyone, honestly, though ironic here – and his neighbor (Zazie Beetz) shows some understanding, yet even they can’t keep his constant “negative thoughts” at bay.
They don't get more positive: Arthur discovers documents that call into question certain parts of his childhood and he's confronted by bullies on a subway car. When he violently fights back, he feels a sense of power he’s never experienced. A switch is unlocked and he's a brand-new man, venturing down a brutal path that finds him donning colorful face paint.
Suddenly, the shunned outcast transforms into a symbol for Gotham’s most marginalized inhabitants, and with new swagger, Arthur confronts two men he feels wronged him and his family: his mom's former boss Wayne and Arthur's comedy idol, Murray. (They don't get much time together but it's pretty terrific to see two greats like Phoenix and De Niro – who probably would have been playing this Joker 40 years ago – butting heads.)
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Phoenix has played everyone from Jesus Christ to Johnny Cash, and his talent to physically transform is integral in creating a tortured man who doesn't come alive until he finally embraces the roiling chaos within. Bones protrude monstrously from his emaciated body, and his soul-rattling laughter perverts a hallmark of happiness. Arthur hauntingly moves to music all his own, though he’s out of tune with literally everyone else, with Phoenix proving worthy of that Oscar talk by navigating his onscreen persona’s downward spiral with sinister artistry.
Because of the subject matter and popularity of the character, “Joker” will be the center of many conversations, whether that's the way it deals with violence and Arthur’s mental- health issues or questioning if it glorifies villainy. While the audience initially feels for his plight, Arthur isn't seen as a sympathetic figure once he begins making questionable moral decisions. Instead, “Joker” at its core is a cautionary tale about how we treat others and the potentially combustible situation that arises when people are made to feel different rather than welcomed. Unfortunately, that message sometimes is lost amid some rather well-done swerves – Joker's never had a straightforward origin story in the comics, so why we would he get one here? – and the bombast of a riotous finale.
Sure, the late Heath Ledger's spot as the greatest Joker of them all is still safe. But Phoenix puts a human face on colorful bedlam in a truly chilling turn for Phillips’ "Joker," an imperfect albeit thought-provoking project that relishes the discomfort it causes.