Joaquin Phoenix goes all in as “Joker” in this bold origin story from “Hangover” trilogy director Todd Phillips. This is unlike any previous DC movie. And Phoenix’s interpretation of the iconic Batman villain is distinctly different from past big-screen versions done by Jack Nicholson, Jared Leto and Heath Ledger.
“Joker” is 100% focussed on the person behind the laugh. Arthur Fleck lives with his mother in a rundown apartment in socially crumbling Gotham City. He’s mentally challenged and is on a variety of meds. He also suffers from an uncontrollable laughing condition. Arthur works as a performance clown, but has dreams of becoming a stand-up comic.
However, the deck of life is clearly stacked against him. A series of events take place that set Arthur off on a violent revenge spree, though what’s real and what’s taking place in Arthur’s mind is open to interpretation.
Phoenix’s performance — mannerisms, dialogue delivery, physical movements and facial expressions – is remarkable. He’s in practically every scene over the 2-hours. At no point does he fail to mesmerize.
“Joker” is truly a twisted tour-de-force for Phoenix – nothing less, and nothing more. The film relies entirely on the quirky actor, making it tough to hand-out praise beyond the fantastic central performance.
Phillips has been doing goofy, adult comedies for close to two decades. He deserves credit for taking on this material in such a fearless manner. But not everything surrounding Arthur/Joker is aces. The story is way too intentional, basic and borderline manipulative. Phillips emphasizes a “put on a happy face” theme. Yet, we learn that not everything can be taken at face value. And we get nothing new or surprising from this latest vision of the dark Gotham universe.
As for the controversy surrounding the violence in “Joker”: audiences should realize that this is a film about both a madman with severe mental issues and a society with plenty of its own problems. And, yes, there’s a scene in which the unstable Arthur sneaks into a crowded movie theater disguised as an usher. I’d like to think that was unintentional. But overall, the level of graphic violence in “Joker” is relatively low.