REVIEW: ‘Joker’ Feels Subpar Despite A Stellar Lead Performance

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Joker, directed by Todd Phillips (The Hangover) and starring Joaquin Phoenix (Signs, Gladiator), positions itself as both an origin story and a grounded character study for the Clown Prince of Crime. While the movie has been the subject of much controversy, including a debate over whether or not the film will incite mass violence, ultimately it all amounts to very little since the end result is not all that violent, and frankly a bit shallow.

Joker follows the life of Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), who works as a clown-for-hire and supports his frail, elderly mother Penny (Frances Conroy). Life always seems to grind him down as he’s assaulted by a group of teens outside the furniture store where he works and he feels like he cannot communicate with his social worker.

The only things that bring Arthur joy are his interactions with single mother Sophie (Zazie Beetz), who lives down the hall, and watching talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), who inspires him to pursue a career as a stand-up comedian. When an altercation with three employees of Wayne Enterprises on the subway turns violent, Arthur slowly starts to slip into madness. The reports of the “Clown Killer” spark riots in the streets, mostly aimed at tearing down the image of billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) as a helping hand to the city.

Phoenix’s performance as Fleck is equal parts haunting and compelling. To prepare for the role, Phoenix lost over fifty pounds and the result sees him hunched over in several scenes, his body contorting with inhuman grace and bones jutting out from his skin. Fleck also suffers from a condition that causes him to break out into laughter at inappropriate times. His cackles mix with sobs as he tries to control himself. As the film progresses, he stops trying to conceal these behaviors and embraces them, using them to form his Joker persona. It’s a gradual, gripping transformation and Phoenix sells you on every moment of it.


The cinematography is the secondary star of the film, thanks to the guiding hand of Lawrence Sher (The Hangover, Due Date). Contrast is key to the events of the film, especially where Fleck is concerned. A key visual involves a flight of stairs early in the movie. Fleck trudges up said stairs, head downcast as he is obscured in shadow. Toward the end of the film, he engages in a joyful dance in his full Joker regalia, the sun shining down upon him. Sher also pulls the camera toward Fleck in key moments when his psychosis is unleashed creating an unsettling effect.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is underserved by limited screen time and paper-thin characterizations, particularly Beetz. De Niro, to his credit, makes a meal out of the morsels he’s given and lets his character’s boisterous personality speak for itself. The script, co-written by Phillips and Scott Silver, has several lines of dialogue that would sound utterly ridiculous coming out of anyone other than Phoenix’s mouth. A scene toward the end where Fleck rants about “society” failing him comes off less like fiery judgment and more like the Twitter rant of a furious gamer.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Joker is that for all the hype around Philips making a “grounded character study featuring the Joker,” it doesn’t settle on a clear theme. Is it about how society fails the mentally ill? How the one percent lives versus the rest of us? I was expecting a Joker movie to at least tackle the former, given that demonization of the mentally ill is a very real problem, but those themes were tackled far better in Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy, the films which reportedly inspired Phillips while making Joker.

Ultimately, Joker is neither deserving of the controversy it’s stirred up nor some of the praise it’s received. Phoenix’s performance is the highlight of what is ultimately a relatively tame film.

Joker is now playing in theaters.

  • 7/10
    Rating - 7/10


Ultimately, Joker is neither deserving of the controversy it’s stirred up nor some of the praise it’s received. Phoenix’s performance is the highlight of what is ultimately a relatively tame film.