Let’s the get the obvious stuff out of the way first. In terms of looking at society’s outcasts, Joker owes a great deal of debt to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy (Scorsese was attached to Joker as a producer at one point). Happily, the movie gets its nods to those movies out of the way early as well, allowing us to then look at what it takes for an outsider to suffer the last straw.
All his life, Arthur Fleck (a crazily transcendent Joaquin Phoenix) has been taught by his deluded single mom (Frances Conroy) that he must bring smiles to the lives of everyone he meets. Too bad nobody returns the favor. When he does an everything-must-go promotion with a sign on a street corner, some thugs steal the sign and then beat Arthur senseless with it. And Arthur’s unsympathetic boss makes him pay for the sign out of his meager salary.
Arthur has only two things going for him: a hint of a career at stand-up comedy, and a vague possibility of romance with a fellow apartment dweller. Sadly, both of those outlets show more promise in Arthur’s mind than in harsh reality.
When Arthur scores a major revenge on three bullies who hassle him on the Gotham subway, it briefly tips the scales in his favor. He becomes the flavor-of-the-month superhero, even ending up as a guest on the talk show of his favorite celebrity, Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro). (Yeah, I know, another Scorsese reference, but who’s counting?)
The trouble is that, knowing Arthur’s utter lack of social skills, we can see disaster looming on the horizon of his every public appearance. The movie’s amazing dichotomy is that we can nevertheless feel for this poor guy every step of the way.
For this we can credit Phoenix’s full-bodied characterization. He fearlessly throws himself into the role and makes us shudder for and pity him at the same time.
Be warned that Joker earns its R rating with unrelenting violence. But it’s balanced out by Todd Philips’ solid writing and directing, and sincere performances by all, especially Phoenix.