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Film review: 'Joker'


The chatter surrounding the much-anticipated release of "Joker" -- Todd Phillips' gritty origin story of Batman's arch-nemesis -- has been contentious, leading to debates over both the quality and the politics of the film, and whether its depiction of a deluded white, male loner driven to violent acts might embolden some genuinely dangerous people.

The conversation about whether the film itself might inspire violence always felt more than a little alarmist. And looking at things a bit cynically, at a certain point those debates simply become another part of the movie's marketing. With no major incidents occurring since its release, the discourse has mostly returned the film's merits simply as a film and what -- if anything -- it has to say about class, mental illness, and our exceedingly violent culture.

We meet lonely, mentally-unwell Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a professional party clown who dreams of being a stand-up comedian in the vein of his idol, late night talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro). Arthur lives in an apartment with his ailing mother (Frances Conroy), who nurses an obsession with her former employer Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen).

Arthur has a neurological condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably at inappropriate moments. The reaction from those around him only furthers his feelings of isolation. Outside his apartment, Arthur is ridiculed, tormented, and beaten by seemingly everyone he encounters.

He's a man whose every miserable moment pushes him further toward violence, which finally arrives during a random confrontation which ends with him murdering three Wall Street bros that harass him on the subway. The incident inadvertently turns him into a folk hero to certain segments of Gotham's population, who see his actions as the first shots in a war against the rich.

Directed and co-written by Todd Phillips ("Old School," "The Hangover" trilogy), "Joker" is well made, and Phoenix gives a decent performance (no surprise), even if we feel the effort behind all that acting. It also looks great, with Lawrence Sher's textured cinematography lending the film a palette of dark hues that evoke the seedy look of New York City in the '70s and '80s.

But it's also one-note, overly serious and self-satisfied, making for a film that's alternately tense and kind of tedious. "Joker" so desperately wants its story to be viewed as holding a mirror up to our violent, empty society. It seeks to say something about individuals who've been abused by those more powerful than them; about the people in society who don't feel seen, and where their pain can ultimately lead them.

Ultimately it becomes clear that the film has nothing to say about the issues it raises, so they come across like mere window dressing to what's in the end a fairly conventional comic book supervillain origin story. And it can never quite overcome the inherent problem of telling such an origin story, which by definition means that the audience knows exactly where this tale is headed. So we sit and watch it head there with precious few detours along the way.

"Joker" wears its influence of Martin Scorsese on its sleeve, evoking both "The King of Comedy" and "Taxi Driver" through its themes, plot points, and visual motifs. It leans on them heavily to lend its story the weight it doesn't earn on its own.

I can stomach bleak and nihilistic films, but even grim stories can find a whole range of notes to play on the path toward creating that tone. Phillips keeps hitting the same beats, turning the film into a grueling, monotonous slog. For all its edgelord provocation, the movie is so morally muddled, with so little to say, that the most I could muster was a shrug. It feels like a long, meandering joke that reaches an end without ever delivering a punchline.