‘Joker:’ Joaquin Phoenix is no laughing matter

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**Spoilers Ensue…Read at Your Own Risk if You Have not Seen ‘Joker’**

In the run-up to its release, Todd Phillips’ “Joker” became one of this year’s most controversial films. Commentators and critics have argued the movie presents a sympathetic, even inspiring, vision of a murderous psychopath. Indeed, the United States Army even sent out a warning that mass shooters might target showings of the feature.

Subsequently, the conversation surrounding “Joker” has been dominated by discussions regarding the incendiary nature of its content. But the truth is, aside from Joaquin Phoenix’s mesmerizing lead performance, the movie is mostly unexceptional. Its main character is too sad to be a murderous icon, its shocking violence really isn’t, and its narrative is trite.

The only thing that’s genuinely outrageous about “Joker” is its mediocrity.

Sympathy for the Devil

One of the big points of contention surrounding the film is that it offers a sympathetic take on the Joker. But in truth, the character Phoenix portrays only bears a passing resemblance to the 79-year-old DC Comics character.

Arthur Fleck isn’t a brilliant but deranged supervillain with a penchant for mass destruction. Instead, he’s a mentally ill loner and wannabe comedian. After a violent encounter with a group of yuppies, Fleck goes off his medication and begins taking out his pent-up aggression and sorrow on those who’ve wronged him. For this Joker, violence and chaos are a means to an end, not an end unto itself.

Though writer-director Todd Phillips (“The Hangover” trilogy) said “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy” served as inspirations for “Joker,” the film most closely resembles Brian De Palma’s “Carrie.” Like that movie’s protagonist, Arthur is portrayed as a psychologically damaged outcast who is pushed to the breaking point. Moreover, like Sissy’s Spacek’s psychic teen, Phoenix’s failed clown has an eerie remoteness that makes him sympathetic but not empathetic.

“Joker” also feels heavily influenced by “Fight Club.” In both films, the protagonists’ violence apotheoses inspire revolutionary movements. But while an earlier generation of malcontents made Tyler Durden into a quasi folk hero, history seems unlikely to repeat itself. Arthur’s deep-seated passivity and ineptitude make him hard to envy.

Had Phillips and Phoenix given the film’s titular character a sense of drama, decadence, or humor, he might’ve been dangerous. But this Joker feels more pitiable than anything else.

Very Much a Superhero Movie

Because of its R-rating, graphic violence, and unsettling tone, some critics have argued “Joker” has transcended the superhero movie genre. That assertion is false. The film is a superhero movie through and through, albeit a very dark and violent one.

Throughout the film, Arthur goes through a classic superhero’s journey. After a life-changing incident, he adopts an alter ego and begins dispensing his unsanctioned brand of justice. While authorities find his existence unacceptable, everyday people applaud his vigilantism. The character even has villains; an evil cartoon billionaire (Brett Cullen), and a sneering talk show host (Robert De Niro).

“Joker” is just a superhero movie in terms of narrative. The film’s characters irritatingly tend to speak declarative sentences at each other to drive the plot forward. While previous iterations of the Joker had ambiguous motives, Phoenix seems to say everything he thinks. Moreover, most of the movie’s cast exist as extensions of the main character’s shallow anxieties and desires. As a result, the feature has a disappointing flatness and lack of texture.

It’s also worth noting that the film’s much fretted about violence is graphic but brief. Its intermittent bursts of carnage don’t hold a candle to “Game of Thrones” or “American Horror Story.”

Furthermore, for all its visible grime and tonal bleakness, “Joker” has a lot of superhero movie contrivances. As he spirals into madness, Arthur also becomes inexplicably capable. The former mental institution patient and clown is revealed as a great shot and master of disguise. He’s also lucky enough to have his increasingly murderous activities investigated by two profoundly stupid and incurious detectives.

Ultimately, “Joker” is a dark psychological drama that unfolds within the framework of a superhero movie. But the notion that it is a genre-shattering achievement doesn’t hold water.

It’s Not All Bad

“Joker” is not a good movie, but it’s not a terrible one, either.

The film’s best quality is, predictably, its leading performance. Joaquin Phoenix is legitimately extraordinary as Arthur Fleck. From the movie’s opening moments, it’s clear that he’s a troubled man who desperately wants a better life. Unfortunately, his mental health issues continually prevent him from gathering any forward momentum.

Phoenix’s version of the Joker is sympathetic because he has so many nuances.

Aside from bursts of unsettling pathological laughter, Arthur doesn’t stand out at first. Early on, he’s quiet, kind, and relentlessly hard-working in spite of his devastating personal circumstances. Consequently, the viewer can’t help but be crushed alongside him as the world breaks the last of his spirit.

The actor also makes several unexpected choices that make the character truly fascinating. While suffused with fury and sadness, Arthur is also sardonic and incredulous. Also, his tendency to break into a strange, Thom Yorke-esque dance at random moments is oddly compelling.

Also, Todd Phillips made Arthur’s descent feel tragically inevitable. The film’s almost suffocating singular focus on the main character’s isolation, and pain make his embrace of violence feel almost logical. The director also did an excellent job establishing that Arthur’s insanity makes his perception of events unreliable. Moreover, Phillips gives the film a pervasive tension that makes it a truly enervating watch.

Besides, “Joker” features career-best work from cinematographer Lawrence Scheer (“Garden State”). His filthy, dilapidated version of the 1980s Gotham City provides a level of verisimilitude for the film’s dialog and lack of plot.

“Joker” is not a mass shooter recruiting film or a new high watermark for superhero cinema. But it is a darkly captivating film that is worth watching for its stunning lead performance alone.