Once the hubris created by ranks of combustible film-festival critics has dissipated, a press screening of Todd Phillips’ Joker reveals it as a somewhat unexceptional piece of work, a rather flat, by-the-numbers origin story held together by a strong production design and a manic central performance from Joaquin Phoenix. Doubling down on the deadly edge that Heath Ledger brought to the role in The Dark Knight, Phoenix locates the Joker’s heart in poverty, being downtrodden and humiliated; a decent enough conceit, but not a particularly interesting or involving one to watch.
Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) lives with his ailing mother in a tiny apartment in Gotham City; he’s a professional clown, but an encounter with some street thugs encourages him to start packing heat, his gun falls out of his costume during a performance at a children’s hospital, and Fleck is fired. Things spiral downhill in the patented Death Wish/Taxi Driver model, and Fleck’s fascination with an amoral talk show host (Robert De Niro) eventually leads to the formation of the character we know as Joker.
And that’s it, really, the trailer said it all in much more style, and there’s the usual rote staging of the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, which looks pretty much the same as it did in every movie since the Tim Burton one. For a film so sensitive to the main character’s obsessions, the attitudes to mental health issues are not particularly helpful either; Fleck is portrayed as suffering from a ‘brain injury’ and carries a card that explains to curious strangers that he has a medical condition. Those who carry such cards in real life may well find such scenes unhelpful. Similarly, superhero movies have made a virtue of avoiding guns and real-life violence; having the Joker shoot unarmed people with a handgun, yet remain the film’s most sympathetic character, is somewhat problematic.
All that said, Joker’s feel for a gritty, grimy city, rife with porn and violence circa 1981, is accomplished, and Phoenix is terrific in the central role, bringing the same intensity he brought to the little-seen You Were Never Really Here. Joker is the kind of super-serious venture that lacks comedy, tragedy or humanity; it’s an exploitation of a well-loved but ancient IP that should work for fan-boys, but may well elicit shrugs from the rest of the audience.