Action, 122 minutes, rated R, Violet Crown, 2 chiles
From the hysterical levels of overpraise, concern-trolling, and general hype that have greeted Joker, casual observers might assume that it’s either genius, right-wing propaganda, or some diabolically potent combination thereof. The truth is, it’s just a movie — a fine movie, not a great movie, a movie that will please the specific subculture of fans it aims to service.
A grim, shallow, distractingly derivative homage to 1970s movies at their grittiest, Joker continues the dubious darker-is-deeper tradition that Christopher Nolan helped codify with his Batman films. Here, director Todd Phillips — best known for raunchy bro-downs such as The Hangover — takes the tonal atmosphere to an even more grisly, nihilistic level, throwing out nods to Martin Scorsese’s filmography, as well as Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times and the entire ’70s canon of grimy urban classics. Although Phillips can be commended for borrowing from the best, the hat-tips become exhausting, as Joker begins to feel less like an original film and more like a funhouse reflection of images and themes we’ve seen before.
No one is weaker than Arthur Fleck, an aspiring stand-up comedian whose day job is working as a clown, either entertaining kids in the hospital or sign-waving on crowded city streets. Portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix in a florid, Pagliacci-like turn as sad-clown-turned-mad-clown, Fleck is a pathetic man-child who lives with his mother (Frances Conroy), jotting down idle thoughts and bad puns in his joke journal (“I just hope my death makes more cents than my life”) and nursing a deluded ambition to appear on a late-night show hosted by a comic named Murray Franklin. The fact that Franklin is played by Robert De Niro is just one of many nods to Scorsese, in this case to the brilliant King of Comedy. (In that film, of course, De Niro played the unhinged fan.)
As an origin story, Joker is vivid and convincing (and offers a tantalizingly fateful encounter connecting Fleck to the wider universe), but mostly it serves as a canvas for Phoenix, who goes to strenuous lengths to deliver a performance of operatic bombast. Alarmingly emaciated and affecting a maniacal laugh that Fleck barks out when he’s scared or angry or confused, he delivers a self-consciously larger-than-life performance in a role that simply doesn’t warrant the gravitas afforded to it by fans and filmmakers alike.
Joker is, finally, so monotonously grandiose and full of its own pretensions that it winds up feeling puny and predictable. Like the anti-hero at its center, it’s a movie trying so hard to be capital-b Big that it can’t help looking small.