Review: Joker

Joaquin Phoenix in "Joker."
Joaquin Phoenix in “Joker.”

Dir. Todd Phillips. 122 minutes.

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is down on his luck in the extreme: he lives with his mother, his career as a stand-up comic is failing and he’s just been fired from his job as a rent-a-clown. After killing three Wall Street bankers in an altercation, Fleck finds himself the unwitting symbol of a protest movement against Gotham City’s elites.

If “Joker” has become the world’s first billion-dollar R-rated film, it rests mainly on the shoulders of Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix is sublime, bringing a level of detail to the titular giggling outcast not found on the page. Here is an actor who could turn a 30-second Pepsi commercial into a frightening and heartbreaking experience. Without Phoenix’s genius, Fleck would become camp, or worse.

Thematically, “Joker” is undercooked. Fleck’s vigilantism sparks a protest movement, but against what? The 1 percent? Chads and Stacies? A few protesters are seen denouncing “the rich” and “fascists,” but, beyond that, the filmmakers never bother to tell us. Sometimes, the Gotham of “Joker” is so bleak it’s almost comical — an infinite sprawl of mugger-infested alleyways, porno theaters and hospitals full of terminally ill children. At its best, “Joker” is a stylish, focused and serious-minded portrayal of a man on the edge; at its worst, it’s “‘Taxi Driver’ for Dummies.”