For the first time, the man who laughs gets the star spot all to himself. No going 50-50 with the Caped Crusader, like Jack Nicholson did in Batman; even the late, great Heath Ledger’s Oscar for The Dark Knight was for Best Supporting Actor. In Joker, Joaquin Phoenix digs into the title role, kicks out the jams, and stamps the character with a danger all his own. “Phenomenal” is a puny word to describe his gut-punch performance. Over-the-top? Maybe. But if you want to trade Hollywood pablum for bug-fuck intensity, do it with an actor who knows how to humanize a guy destined for hell. Laughing maniacally, dancing on a stairway to Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2,” and twisting his face and body into contortions that defy physics, Phoenix is a virtuoso of unleashed id. You don’t dare look away from him.
Comics fans will need to keep cool, however, since Phoenix and director Todd Phillips — who co-wrote the script with Scott Silver — have devised a stand-alone origin story that owes no allegiance to the DC Universe canon. If any deference is paid, it’s to Martin Scorsese, whose Taxi Driver inspires the gritty look of Gotham City circa 1981 (deep bows to the brute-force camerawork of Lawrence Sher) and whose lead character in that film, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), lives in the same bloody torment as our clown-face antihero.
Say hello to Arthur Fleck, introduced by Phoenix as a loser whose struggles with mental illness leave him mostly solitary. Arthur is a clown for hire who dreams of doing stand-up comedy. He and his mom (Frances Conroy) live in squalor and obsess over a late-night TV talkfest hosted by Murray Franklin, played by De Niro in a scrappy spin on The King of Comedy‘s comic-turned-kidnapper, Rupert Pupkin. Surprisingly, Arthur finds a love connection with Sophie (a feisty Zazie Beetz), a single mom in his building. What’s a sexy, caring woman doing with Arthur? Yes, the hookup at first is just as unconvincing as it is in the two Scorsese movies to which Joker owes such a massive debt. What matters more here is Arthur’s yearning, which Phoenix plays with a striking, wounded tenderness.
Phillips, best known for the farcical hijinks of Road Trip, Old School, and the Hangover trilogy, uses the New Hollywood influence to add darker shades to his palette, but he finds a flinty, individual style as the plot progresses. For Phoenix, the challenge is blending Joker’s manic hilarity without shortchanging the clinical depression and Tourette’s-like outbursts that never let up on Arthur’s psyche. How much of the movie is real or in Arthur’s head is up to each viewer. You may laugh with and at this transfixing character, but you can’t laugh him off.
Not surprisingly, the catalyst for Arthur’s transition into a clown prince of crime is violence. The emaciated sad sack (Phoenix lost a reported 52 pounds for the role) is bullied relentlessly, first by punks on the street and later on the subway by Wall Street wolves who think this clown, this mama’s boy, is aching to get his ass kicked. A previously introduced handgun is put to use. And the gut-wrenching, R-rated massacre turns our man in makeup into a tabloid star popular enough to inspire a chorus of masked clowns to march in protest against the rich, repped by mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), the father of Bruce.
The Batman parallels will make you wince, especially when they connect to Arthur’s mother. It’s a momentum dip from which Phillips recovers with a scene that will have audiences arguing for ages. Fleck, invited to appear on Murray Franklin Live, is humiliated by the host until he explosively turns the tables. Is sympathy for this devil another form of advocacy for vigilante justice? Or are Phoenix and Phillips pushing for a fuller understanding of how a victim can morph into a victimizer, an indisputable fact of life that tragically resonates today? As entertainment and provocation, Joker is simply stupendous.