Directed by: Todd Phillips
Written by: Todd Phillips and Scott Silver
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, and Frances Conroy
The most interesting thing about Joker is the built-in audience history its main actors, Joaquin Phoenix and Robert De Niro, bring to their respective roles. Director Todd Phillips’ R-rated origin story of the anarchic clown who torments Batman culminates in a late night talk show appearance featuring the two. Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a party clown turned unstable killer, goes on the show after video of his disastrous stand-up comedy performance was mocked by the host, Murray Franken (De Niro).
During this scene, it was impossible not to think about Phoenix’s notoriously awkward 2009 appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman. I remember this cringe-worthy I’m Still Here-era interview defining my perception of the actor until I saw him a few years later in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, which remains one of the greatest performances of the decade.
Phoenix is a beguiling screen presence, capable of tapping into distinctly odd emotional registers that are heartbreakingly vulnerable and sometimes quite disturbing. To see him in this scene with De Niro, who is doing a role reversal on his performance in the 1983 Martin Scorsese masterpiece The King of Comedy, is a highlight that almost makes the rest of the movie worth it (again: almost). It’s one of the few moments in Joker that succeeds in generating a palpable sense of discomfort and dread.
It seems clear to me that De Niro was used to lean in to the Scorsese comparisons, though Phillips’ vision doesn’t come close to the artistic heights reached by King of Comedy, Taxi Driver or any of the director’s other pictures that Joker emptily rips off. When it began with an image of an inky blue tear dribbling down Arthur’s clown-painted face as he stretches his mouth into a demented smirk, I had hope that, if nothing else, Joker would offer him the chance to weird up a big studio film.
This image is probably Joker’s most indelible, though. It never trusts its audience long enough to go anywhere more interesting, instead circling and underlining its own boldness until it becomes tedious. Arthur’s history of mental illness and his relationship with his mother (Frances Conroy), both key factors in his descent into clown villainy, are rendered just as flatly as the movie’s attempts at social commentary. In fact, Joker goes out of its way to dance around meaning of almost any kind.
That may be the way its head clown intended (“I’m not political,” he says at one point, before shooting someone in the head), but it’s clear that the movie he’s in so desperately wants to be about something. Sadly, more care is given to staging its bursts of exceedingly cruel, bloody violence than in contextualizing them. Its ideas about class warfare and a broken mental health system are so generically rendered that they become little more than window dressing.
In spite of all this working against him, Phoenix gives a memorably disturbed performance. When Phillips focuses on his physicality, his awkward bodily contortions and facial tics, there are glimpses at the movie that might have been, one where one of the greatest living actors was allowed to reach the ridiculous, operatic register necessary for a character as overblown as the Joker.