Joker is a clever and memorable (although not terribly original or enjoyable) R-rated art-house drama in the tradition of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy masquerading as yet another comic book movie. Bizarre as it would have seemed in 1976, playing Batman’s maniacal archenemy has become for movie stars what portraying Richard III is for Shakespearean actors: the ultimate test of their villain chops. Joaquin Phoenix joins Jack Nicholson and the late Heath Ledger as impressive Jokers.
The 19th-century Romantics conceived of madness, such as in Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor, as an excess of emotion and personality. Actor Dustin Hoffman, who’d once had a day job as an attendant at the New York state mental hospital, introduced in The Graduate and Rain Man a new alternative: the mentally challenged as depressed, obsessive-compulsive, and on the spectrum.
Phoenix’s performance is a throwback to the old operatic style, with no attempt to conform to current DSM-5 categories. This is reasonably in sync with the roots of the character: The 1930s comic book authors had modeled their grinning Joker on the makeup worn by Conrad Veidt in the 1928 Expressionist Weimar-American silent film The Man Who Laughs. In turn, that was based on Victor Hugo’s 1869 Romantic novel. Hugo’s main character is secretly an aristocrat’s son sold to child abusers who twisted his face into a permanent smile to display him in a freak show. Faint echoes of this show up in Joker. Joker Buy New $5.99 (as of 07:20 EST - Details)
Phoenix, who played the Emperor Commodus in Gladiator and Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, is a stupendous actor. On the other hand, he is in every single scene (to keep uncertain what is happening in reality versus just inside his head) of this slow-paced two-hour film, which is a little too much of a good thing.
By the end, Phoenix starts tossing in effeminate gay mannerisms, presumably out of boredom, much as the eccentric star once sidelined his career to troll the public with the performance-art prank of giving up acting for rapping.
Why do comic book movies dominate the box office? (Joker opened with an October record $96 million, which is a huge number for a mid-budget movie with few special effects.)
With the shift in pop cultural hegemony from Old Americans to Ellis Island Americans, movies based on comic book superheroes, most of whom were dreamed up by American Jews from the 1930s into the 1960s, now fill the role once played by Westerns as Hollywood’s bread-and-butter genre. Writer-director Todd Phillips, who previously made comedies of masculine excess such as The Hangover and War Dogs, dreamed up a story that ingeniously merges the DC Universe, the Scorsese-verse, and the Trumpian present.
Of course, owing to the boyish preposterousness of the source material, it’s harder to make a really good movie out of a comic book than out of a cowboy tale. Phillips tries by eliminating all the superpowers. In this origin story, Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck isn’t a criminal mastermind; he’s a low-IQ delusional loser like the Robert De Niro characters Travis Bickle (who was partly based on the guy who shot governor George Wallace in 1972) and Rupert Pupkin.