Review: Joker

No laughing matter.


Well before its official release, Joker already had an armlock on our attention. The movie's trailer made clear that this was not another slick comic-book epic, but rather a grim, R-rated story of homicidal madness set in the bad old New York (well, "Gotham") of the early 1980s. And it was immediately apparent that the picture's star, Joaquin Phoenix, was up to something unusually interesting.

Now, at last, the movie is here, and Phoenix gives, as expected, a bombshell performance as Arthur Fleck, the tormented protagonist, whose miserable tics and twitches never abate, and whose journey—his horrid mutation into Gotham's cackling scourge, the Joker—is the picture's dismal subject.

The movie gets off to a strangely muted start, and even fans of the DC comics in which the demented clown has been giving Batman so much guff for the past 80 years may grow restless. The film takes its time demonstrating Arthur's many problems (among other things, social-service budget cuts have deprived him of the several medications he must take for his mental instability) and sinking us deep into this dank and rancid world.

There are a lot of laughs along the way, but they all emanate from Fleck, who has a neurological disorder that causes him to break into sudden storms of laughter at the most inappropriate moments. (He carries cards that explain his problem: "I have a condition"). But the movie gives us nothing to laugh about—or even smile about, really—since its only non-basket-case characters are Sophie Drummond (Zazie Beetz), a sweet single mother whom we see bestowing on Fleck the only uncomplicated affection he's ever experienced, and a kindly dwarf named Gary (Leigh Gill), an employee of the same tacky rent-a-clown operation where Arthur works. (We see Arthur in big floppy boots and a cap of clown hair dancing around on the sidewalk in front of a store, waving a going-out-of-business sign.)

Director Todd Phillips (purveyor of the Hangover movies) and production designer Mark Friedberg have created a hell-pit Manhattan of rats and trash and roiling, rain-lashed streets that beats Arthur down at every turn. He's stomped in an alley by a pack of feral kids, and on a subway car by a trio of drunken stock-market louts (employees of a company called Wayne Investments, hold that thought). When a coworker gives Arthur a pistol to defend himself, we know that downward is the only direction in which this already bleak story is likely to go.

Arthur still lives with his loosely wrapped mom, Penny (Frances Conroy), in a dingey apartment where they while away time watching a popular talk show hosted by the smug Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Arthur has long harbored the impossible dream of being a standup comic—now, suddenly, that dream comes true. After trying out his pitiful act at a comedy club open-mike night, a tape of Arthur's disastrous performance makes its way to Murray, who plays it on the air as an exercise in pointless cruelty. But viewer response is enthusiastic, and Murray is compelled to invite Arthur to come on his show.

This aspect of the story is of course an upside-down reference to Martin Scorsese's 1982 film, The King of Comedy, in which De Niro played the delusional loner with the unlikely showbiz dream and Jerry Lewis was the frosty talk-show host. In fact, Phillips's whole movie can be read as a salute to Scorsese and De Niro: the scuzzy exteriors are highly reminiscent of Scorsese's 1976 Taxi Driver—another tale about a combustible loner—and even the name of De Niro's character here, Murray Franklin, seems like a nod to a pair of streets in Manhattan's Tribeca district, where De Niro has long presided over an annual film festival and also runs a number of restaurants (one of them on Franklin Street).

When the movie finally does start to coalesce, we see that it actually is an origin story, although not of the superhero sort to which we've become accustomed. There's an eruption of bloody violence in which some well-to-do people die; a clown is seen fleeing the scene. Suddenly the city is filled with clowns, as a long-delayed popular uprising breaks out and signs begin to blossom in the streets: "We Are All Clowns," "Kill the Rich." We meet the financier Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), who is running for mayor on a promise to reverse Gotham's slide into civil ruin. But Wayne's candidacy only stokes the popular revolt. ("Those of us who have made something of our lives," he says, affixing a target to his chest, "will always look at those who haven't as losers.")

Arthur comes to believe that he and Wayne have a secret connection. Showing up unannounced at Wayne Manor, he has an uneasy conversation, through a barred gate, with Wayne's young son Bruce (Dante Pereira-Olson), and then an angry confrontation with the family butler (Douglas Hodge). As the movie proceeds toward its climax, there's a startlingly gruesome assault, and then another one, as Arthur comes into his destiny.

As appropriately dark as the movie is, no one of sound mind is going to be driven to murder or mayhem by it. (I'm not sure I'd want to watch it sitting next to someone seething on the edge of sanity, however.) The movie's unrelenting darkness is occasionally monotonous, but the picture has some standout supporting performances (Zazie Beetz is virtually a burst of sunshine whenever she shows up) and a mesmerizing score by Icelandic composer and cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir that suggests deep tidal currents. The prospect of unnecessary sequels is always dismaying; but Joaquin Phoenix is so good here, and the movie's plot structure is so inventive, that you could find yourself actually wondering what might happen next.

NEXT: Occult Features of Anarchism

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  1. I don’t think we should be talking about this.

    1. I don’t think I should be talking to you.

  2. Went and saw if last night. I thought is was pretty good. All though , there where parts I laughed out loud . Then again, I have a sick sense of humor. Phoenix took the method acting a little far though, he’s all skin a bones.

    1. Joker is like a 70s, family friendly version of Natural Born Killers.

      Joker was a lame story, propped up only by the dancing scenes of a grotesquely misshapen lead character. That anyone in the theater thought the attractive young mother slept with him without throwing up a bit as he slithered out of his shirt strains credulity. The attempt to Beautiful Mind the audience was half baked.

  3. I’m a lifelong comics fan, I was initially put off by hearing Bruce Wayne’s father gets a negative portrayal here, but I’m interested in seeing it not only because Phoenix is supposed to be so great, but because this movie is upsetting all the right people.

    There are authoritarian types losing their minds over it, arguing that the movie is fostering future school shootings, that the director has insulted them by saying wine culture ruined comedy, that Warner Brothers must take a firm stand for gun-grabbing, etc.

    Any movie that can piss off ignorant bullies to such an extent is worth a watch, in my opinion.

    1. *woke culture* not wine. Damn auto correct.

      1. Whine culture is the correct phrase.

      2. I was wondering how wine culture ruined comedy. Sideways wasn’t that bad.

        1. Same way the white wine culture crowd ruined sports. Loges and skyboxes for those with lots of money and little passion.

      3. “wine mom culture” works too.

    2. I assumed you meant ‘whine’ culture, which works too.

    3. It’s worth noting that the elder Wayne is portrayed from the viewpoint of a delusional man.

  4. Ah, for the good ol’ days when Adam West was Batman and Cesar Romero was the Joker.

    1. Or for the good old days when Kevin Conroy managed to differentiate Bruce Wayne and Batman without faking laryngitis and Mark Hamill was the Joker.

      1. Flash, dude. Mark Hamill was the Flash.

        1. I thought he was CockKnocker.

        2. Mark Hamill did the voice of the Joker in the cartoon.

  5. When no violence breaks out at any of the shows, that will be proof that the costume bans worked!

  6. Saw this last night, thought it was really good. Easily the best “origin story” so far. Acting was great, sound was great, visuals were great.

  7. He’s come a long ways since his name was Leaf Phoenix, and was in Space Camp (with an attractive Kelly Preston before Charlie Sheen shot her, and John Travolta married her).

  8. There’s an eruption of bloody violence in which some well-to-do people die; a clown is seen fleeing the scene. Suddenly the city is filled with clowns, as a long-delayed popular uprising breaks out and signs begin to blossom in the streets: “We Are All Clowns,” “Kill the Rich.”

    Another 8chan hoax gone viral.

  9. Time to dust off the clown panic stories from the pre Trump days

    1. Sad we are no longer allowed to insult orange haired freaks.

      1. We’re not?

        Have you always had this persecution complex? Or do you just try to jam in extremely tired off topic biases into every conversation? Yawn.


  10. “Social service budget cuts have deprived him…….,”

    Sigh. Pass.

    1. Healthcare would be free if not for that meddling government!

      1. Said no one.

      2. Dishonest fuck shit Tony, the ass backwards, safe space running little faggot is being deceitful, its not “free” its tax payer funded you dishonest fucking bottom feeding swine.

  11. some review said it was too much “hat tip” like a non-stop homage to everything … I’m down though I love Joaquin

  12. Let me repeat a question I’ve posed before…are there any modern examples of *friendly* clowns? I mean, sure, there’s Ronald McDonald, though he’s being phased out as I understand it.

    So maybe I should rephrase: What’s the proportion of friendly clowns on the one hand, versus tragic/creepy/murderous clowns on the other?

    1. Well, I think most clowns are still supposed to be friendly. There are still circuses and stuff. I remember seeing A Cirque de Sole with sympathetic clowns.

      I think the whole evil clown thing in fiction is a direct result of the assumption that clowns are supposed to be good, and especially friendly towards children. Kind of like Bad Santa (great movie, btw).

      But it is a weird phenomenon when the opposite or “ironic” version of something becomes more culturally prevalent than the original.

      There’s probably already some name for it (like a Poe’s Law kind of deal).

      1. You wanna know what I think? Wait, it’s the Internet, I don’t wait around wondering if people want to know what I think.

        I think that clowns violate children’s expectations of what a human face is supposed to look like. This causes discomfort more than in adults.

        To grown ups it’s a fun kind of dress-up, or more often a chance to get a laugh out of some funny-looking guy’s antics.

        If a kid shakes off the initial creepy sensation he can have fun with clowns along with the grownups. On the other hand, simply judging from the popularity of IT and the Joker, not everyone outgrows the initial uneasiness.

        1. Now that you have that off your chest, what do you think children think when they’re brought to drag queen story hour?

          1. Funny you should mention getting things off chests in this context…

  13. We should not discount the effect movies may have on people’s psychologies. After watching Gosford Park, I spiraled into a dark place where no matter how much I tried, I could not get the perfect seating chart for dinner. It’s difficult for Americans since we have no titles of nobility. Does my grandma outrank my great-aunt in precedence? Who the fuck knows!

    1. Not everyone is weak mined.

  14. well, I guess the peasantry needs to be entertained too

  15. The movie “Split” portrayed psychotic break w/ reality better than does “Joker”. How so? In multiple ways, etcetera. Split made me want to check the back seat before getting into the car. Joker, not so much.

  16. is it better than previous? I loved all the joker movies. But what actually hidden in this movie can you share?
    I plan to watch this movie as I have got 1 voucher when I bought a water purifier a few weeks ago.

  17. I havent seen this film but I know the story. And this film is not a “game-changer” or something like that. Joker is an overhyped movie based on comics but it talks about a few themes that mainstream media don’t like. This is a main reason for such a reaction (maybe not).

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