“Is it just me or is it getting crazier out there?” Arthur Fleck, aka “The Joker” (Joaquin Phoenix), asks his social worker (Sharon Washington). “It is a tough time,” she says. Then asks, “How about you? Are you keeping your journal? Can I see it?” And, from Arthur’s journal, she reads: “I just hope my death makes more sense than my life.” “Does it help,” she asks, hopefully, “to have someone to talk to?” “No,” he says, “I felt better when I was locked up in the hospital.” Nor do things get any better during the next two hours of “The Joker,” a downer of a movie that traces the origins of Batman’s most depraved villain to his homicidal adulthood.
Are we expected to care about Arthur as we learn his wretched childhood and watch his manic maturity? Director/co-writer Todd Phillips says, “Yes.” Not me. Rather, I asked, “When will this villain-in-the-making movie end?”
“The Joker” is Joaquin Phoenix’s film and his performance — “dialed up to 12,” as Phillips says — is certainly Oscar-worthy. “Great actors,” Phillips says, “bring humanity even when they’re playing inhuman people. … They make you feel for (their character) even when you’re not supposed to.” To play the part, Phoenix lost 52 pounds and appears (literally) skin-and-bones. (Remember Christian Bale in “The Machinist”?) I admire Phoenix’s dedication to his art but, sorry, I can’t identify with his vicious character, Arthur Fleck.
Others in the cast include Robert DeNiro as late-night TV host Murray Franklin, about whom Arthur Fleck becomes unglued. Frances Conroy is Arthur’s elderly mother, Penny Fleck, obsessed with Murray Franklin and her former employer, wealthy Thomas Wayne, played by Brett Cullen. (Young Bruce Wayne — who will grow up to be Batman — makes a brief appearance.) Zazie Beetz is single mother and neighbor, Sophie Dumond. Douglas Hodge is Alfred Pennyworth and Shea Whigham is Gotham City Police Department detective.
“The Joker” is a stand-alone film, with no narrative connection to any other DC Universe comic-book movies. Not a prequel and more horror film than action/adventure, it is directed and co-written by Todd Phillips (with Scott Silver). Dark and edgy, “The Joker” references “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy,” but will, I think, be less memorable. It’s one I will try not to remember.
Deservedly rated R (strong bloody violence, disturbing images, language and sexual images), “The Joker” runs 122 minutes. It’s Arthur Fleck’s descent into hell.
Arthur Fleck — out of control —
In a film without a soul;
“When,” I thought, “will this be done?”
Alas, “The Joker” is no fun.