Review: 'Joker'

Joaquin Phoenix is ever-surprising as a clown of thorns in 'Joker'
SENSELESS VIOLENCE: In 'Joker,' madness, despair, chaos and cruelty run rampant in the world's worst city, and there's no Batman in sight.

Do the 23andMe on Todd Phillips' Joker, and most of the DNA is from two Martin Scorsese films: Taxi Driver (1976) and King of Comedy (1983). King of Comedy's influence is clear in the story of a failed comedian. On the Taxi Driver side, we find the influence scriptwriter Paul Schrader brought in from Robert Bresson, a master of austerity.

What if Joker had been a movie about a man imploding instead of exploding? Instead of an Au Hasard, Balthazar, Au Hasard, Joker about a man with laughing sickness, stuck in the worst city in the world—a million bleak tenements rimming an erupting volcano of garbage. There'd be no "cathartic violence" to allow the wretched Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) pass for anything but a doomed antihero.

Budget cuts to the city's mental health program end Fleck's prescriptions for seven different medications; he carries a dogeared card explaining his fits of uncontrollable laughter. Arthur nurses his shut-in mother, Penny (Francis Connor), who bathes in the light of the TV, watching a Johnny Carson surrogate (Robert De Niro). Penny writes unanswered letters to the wealthy thug politician Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), who promises Gotham City, Trumpwise, "Only I can save you." Penny used to work as a domestic at Wayne Manor. From that point her story gets unreliable.

Arthur works for a rent-a-clown agency with some other grim types, derived from the doughnut-eaters in Taxi Driver—"Another day in Chuckleburg!" one says. He spins signs, or prances in a cancer ward in front of bald, hollow-eyed kids. His vision of the big time is a slot at an open mic comedy club, and he's collecting gags in his smeary notebook: "Why are poor people so confused? A: they don't have any cents."

Arthur is bruised skin and bones, with unwashed splotches of greasepaint on his jaw. Shirtless at home, he's crumbled into positions that make him look like a figure in an Oskar Kokoschka painting. The 1970s-oid wardrobe is clownish on everyone: deafening plaids, garish colors and wide lapels. The makeup isn't cheery. The fat lips, the bulbous nose, the black ringed eyes are an ancient code. "Laugh at this stupid bastard; he just got his ass beat." One of Joker's few jokes: laying on the asphalt after a stomping, his squirt flower leaks as if Arthur has wet himself.

When New York was almost this bad in the mid-'70s, there were nihilist clowns called punk rockers. There were anti-comedians, like Michael O'Donoghue; "Mr Mike" would have enjoyed Fleck's idea of a knock-knock joke: "Who's there?" "The police. Your son's been killed by a drunk driver." There was Andy Kaufman's strategic bombing, murmuring bad jokes in a trans-Danubian accent and dissolving into pretend flop-tears.

In performance, Arthur has enough skills to interest pale little Bruce Wayne (Dante Pereira-Olson) wandering alone on the grounds of his family manor; luring him close enough that he can use his fingers to draw the stunned child's mouth into the rictus of a smile. It's all part of Arthur's transformation into a slow-dancing death clown, culminating with the film's most lyrical sequence, a soft-shoe down a littered, ominous staircase.

Phoenix's maniac is never boring, always finding new layers of anguish; it's even remarkable what he does with the cigarettes he chain smokes. When he finally finds his way, his voice is neither young nor old but pedantic—like a put-upon 12-year-old. Odd to see a picture this gigantic, with Hildur Gušnadottir's Icelandic strings groaning away with the noise of a calving glacier, made with nihilist midnight-movie themes.

As for whether Joker is what Luis Bunuel called his primordial midnight-movie Andalusian Dog (1929)—"a desperate, impassioned call to murder"—something that copycats will answer: Given all the essays about the irrelevance of movies, it's a sick joke that for once, the influence of film seems to have the power to conjure such a fear. This city-revenge film is smart enough to know that squalor, like waste-water, flows downhill: Arthur's first victims are some rowdy, drunk stockbrokers who want to kick him around for laughs.

Among the last images is a tableau familiar from this saga: a little boy in a filthy alley, standing between the bodies of his two parents. As staged here, it leaves us with no hope, no premonition of dashing Bat-adventure. All that can come after this is just a feedback loop of senseless loss and suffering.

R, 122 Mins.

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