The humble beginnings of “Joker” invite us to get unnervingly close to a lanky-as-a-corpse, long-haired Joaquin Phoenix. Here he’s Arthur Fleck, a pseudo-everyman unable to keep his frown hooked into a smile as a tear smears his clown makeup. The man who will eventually become director Todd Phillips’s stripped-down version of the Clown Prince of Crime has clearly been doomed from the start, but we never really learn what is contained in that tear—nor how it evolves into flashes of violence as brutish as anything we’ve seen in comic book movies since 2009’s “Watchmen” as they are empty in meaning.
“Joker” would love for you to believe it’s a story mirroring what is happening, in isolated spaces, outside our walls. The product of a seeming thought experiment – “What if a comic book supervillain movie, but without the comic booky-ness?” –this gleefully cruel film from the director of the “Hangover” movies is supposedly set in a version of Gotham City that lives in the 1970s, though that detail’s impact extends only so far as to pay homage to the world of the cinematic inspiration it tries so hard to honor that it ends up parodying: Martin Scorsese’s 1976 drama, “Taxi Driver.”
But no—if you make the mistake “Joker” is interested in the era of Watergate and Vietnam and Travis Bickle, you’d be corrected early on. We only get a single real glimpse of Phillips’s world – another moment of vulnerability for Arthur when a group of teen rascals baits him into a spontaneous beat-down in a back alley – before he wonders aloud to a social worker, “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” Continue reading →