Joaquin Phoenix is the reason to see “Joker.”
He’s heartbreakingly real as a man who is bullied at every turn – at home, at work, at play.
When he loses his job as a clown, Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck ramps up his desire to be a standup comedian. His awful turn attracts the attention of a late night host (Robert De Niro), who makes fun of him and puts into motion a downward spiral that “Joker” never overcomes.
While origins stories have been filmmakers’ ways into interesting characters, this one never quite tosses a lifeline to anyone. Fleck is rejected by friends, family and strangers and sees violence as his only way out.
He gets a shot on Murray Franklin’s show and seizes it.
Writer/director Todd Phillips lets Phoenix craft the downfall (and transformation into the villainous Joker) step by step. He dances like Fred Astaire, stares like James Taylor and performs like Andy Kaufman. The nuances are remarkable, but they belong in a better movie.
Phillips hammers every point until it’s impossible to miss the message. “Joker” attempts to explain violent behavior, but tying Fleck to rejection from Bruce Wayne’s family is a bit too direct. TV’s “Gotham” was a much more interesting take on the Batman villains’ origins. You could take the clown/Gotham City elements out of this and it’d be just another depressing look at one man’s descent.
Frances Conroy, as Arthur’s needy mother, could have been used more as his refuge, particularly since she’s one of the few people who see him in a positive light. A few co-workers might have been players, too.
Phillips makes statements about mental health care, entitlement and vigilantes. There’s a moment that seems like it was plucked from “V for Vendetta” and a view of the Waynes that’s practically ripped from today’s headlines.
It’s easy to see why audiences are equating Fleck to a school shooter. There’s a desire to place blame when, honestly, this is a confluence of events.
De Niro never strikes us as anything but an opportunist. He’s not exactly welcoming as a host and when he does see how deranged Arthur is, he doesn’t attempt to temper anything. Had he been more Johnny Carson (as the setting seems to suggest), “Joker” might not have been so jarring.
Because Phoenix invests so much in the work, the film begs to be seen. But it’s like so many artistic ventures – once is enough.
“Joker” is not a film looking for a sequel.