(director/writer: Todd Phillips; screenwriter: Scott Silver; cinematographer: Lawrence Sher; editor: Jeff Groth; music: Hildur Gudnadóttir; cast: Joaquin Phoenix (Arthur Fleck), Robert De Niro (Murray Franklin), Zazie Beetz (Sophie Dumond), Frances Conroy(Penny Fleck), Brett Cullen (Thomas Wayne), Bill Camp (Detective Garrity), Shea Whigham (Detective Burke), Brian Tyree Henry (Carl), Marc Maron (Gene Ufland), Dante Pereira-Olson (Bruce Wayne), Douglas Hodge (Alfred Pennyworth), Sharon Washington (social worker), Leigh Gill (Gary), Glenn Fleshler (Randall); Runtime: 121; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Bradley Cooper, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Todd Phillips; Warner Bros. Pictures; 2019)

The chilling take away I got is that the cackling laugh of the Joker gets into your head, as if the filmmaker thinks that’s enough to explain this sad mental illness story.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The Joker first appeared in comic book form in 1940 in Batman #1. Other noteworthy Joker portrayals include Cesar Romero’s campy TV one and the smirking cinema supporting roles of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger. This is the first where Joker stars and there’s no Batman.

The Joker was a rare mainstream Hollywood studio film to win the Venice film festival’s Golden Lion (Don’t ask how!). Director Todd Phillips (“The Hangover”/”Due Date”), best known for his superficial, lewd and popular comical films about young male adults, offers us this artless film that gives us the chance to see how the mentally ill Joker became the arch-nemesis of Batman. Phillips puts across a drama that has muddled messages about mental illness and unrealistic riot scenes of white professional clowns rioting in a fictionalized downtrodden NYC of 1981 (one facing a garbage strike and large layoffs of city workers due to a downturn in the economy caused by greedy bankers that’s based on what happened in the real world).

The Joker is co-written in a cynical and sub-standard way by Scott Silver and Phillips, looking for an entertaining rather than a probing film. It only offers easy answers to explain complex problems and never gets into the Joker’s head despite going over his journals and his narration.

Phillips has said he was influenced by Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). But this film leaves only shrill social conscious messages compared to Taxi’s ability to accurately capture the mood of a city shaken by a bad war and also through its thoughtful victimized anti-hero–the former Viet-Nam war soldier, Travis Bickle (played by De Niro), going on an insane one-man crusade against society. It also channels Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1983), where De Niro played a delusional wannabe comedian named Rupert Pupkin. Both Bickle and Pupkin as misfits can somewhat explain the character development of Fleck, who is however more creepy than insightful.

The film will probably be enjoyed by many through Joaquin Phoenix’s intensely brilliant psychotic take on his iconic comic book character. Phoenix gives an energetic and dark performance as the nobody Arthur Fleck–the nobody who becomes the infamous Joker supposedly because of an abusive childhood, by having no one in society who cares about him, by numerous public humiliations and by finding out he’s better at violence than comedy. But even Phoenix’s admirable portrayal of the Joker cannot make this comic book story a thought provoking or good film.

The twenty-something Arthur Fleck–a former patient at Arkham Asylum, with a neurological condition that has him breaking into unstoppable loud laughter at inopportune moments–is currently being treated with meds and weekly visits by a mediocre but politically aware black social worker (Sharon Washington).

Arthur’s invisible to society (either with a painted clown face or without one), who works for a midtown rental agency for clowns. One day he gets a beating in a garbage strewn alleyway from a thuggish teen gang of color, who rob his advertising sign which he was twirling on a busy street while working as a clown for a music store advertising gig.

Arthur is always seen as a vic. He soon will get fired for bringing a gun into a children’s hospital when entertaining them. On the subway, when verbally abused and physically beaten by three ass-hole drunken white Wall Street executives in suits, he will for the first time take no more beatings and with his gifted gun from a fellow clown (Glenn Fleshler) kill all three on the subway (making headlines in the fractured city, as the filmmaker inaccurately references the clown killing to the real Bernhard Goetz subway shooting of 1984). Arthur then turns to doing stand-up comedy at a club for aspiring comedians, but is not funny.

Arthur is a loser, who lives in a cramped apartment in a crappy building with his mentally unstable, ageing and disabled mother (Frances Conroy). There’s no fun in his life, but he still manages to get the attention of a single black mom (Zazie Beetz) with a daughter, who is a neighbor. But hints of romance only pop up when convenient to promote the awkward narrative of Arthur as an undesirable deplorable.

Arthur gets on his favorite cheesy late-night talk-show That’s Life (a Joe Franklin feel-good NYC nostalgia-like show), and the insincere host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) befriends him only to use him to get ratings and then betrays him without caring about making fun of him on the air.

Meanwhile Arthur’s depressed mom writes pressing letters to her wealthy former employer Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), the banker tycoon now running for mayor as the friend of the wealthy, who calls on a TV interview the have nots as clowns for being unable to make it in America. Mom accuses Wayne of being Arthur’s real father, hoping he will take pity on them and give them some charity. At the Wayne gated mansion, we see the patriarch treat the intruder Arthur as a piece of turd while his young child Bruce is treated with love.

In the end, the Joker gets a superb performance from its star and little else that makes you feel good about such a phony Hollywood type of film. It’s a film telling us without any sense of conviction about the failure of capitalism and failure of society to treat mental illness, or for that matter about the failure to even get gun control legislation passed as a means of public safety after so many mass killings. It’s a vacuous drama that never tells us really much about the Joker’s state of mind as he morphs into a force for evil or the truth about why Gotham is in such a bad state or anything relevant about why the country seems like it’s in decline. It seems to have thrown into the garbage its aesthetics and left us to be entertained by a diverting comic book story that was not poignant and not compelling.

The chilling take away I got is that the cackling laugh of the Joker gets into your head, as if the filmmaker thinks that’s enough to explain this sad mental illness story.

REVIEWED ON 10/5/2019       GRADE:   C+