Joaquin Phoenix in Joker (Photo: Warner)

★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Todd Phillips
STARS Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro

(For a look at The 10 Best & 10 Worst Films of 2019, go here.)

The theatrical trailer for Joker — tight, controlled, and intriguing — suggested the best movie Martin Scorsese never made. The actual movie is a shallow and sophomoric effort that isn’t about a raging bull as much as it’s merely raging bullshit.

Nevertheless, the Scorsese connection is there, with two titles particularly coming into play. Like 1976’s Taxi Driver, Joker is the study of a disturbed individual who eventually finds his catharsis through violence, and, like 1982’s The King of Comedy, it’s a look at a man who desperately wants to become a famous comedian, complete with all the attendant trappings. This all takes place in a movie that at once exists within the comic-book milieu while also simultaneously wanting to remain apart from it.

Set in the Gotham City of 1981 (we know this because a movie theater is showing Blow Out and Zorro: The Gay Blade), this stars Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, who’s been beaten down by life — and beaten up by everyone around him — from Day One. Desperately wanting to become a beloved comedian like his idol, talk-show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, cast because of his Scorsese connection but, at the end of the day, badly miscast), he toils as a clown-for-hire while waiting for his big break. But nothing is easy for him, as he’s irritated by his invalid mother (Frances Conroy), mocked by co-workers, assaulted by a gang of street kids, insulted by Murray on live television, and harassed by three Wall Street slugs. It’s that last act that pushes him over the edge, as he turns into 1984-vintage Bernhard Goetz and shoots all of them. Their deaths turn Fleck into a hero — finally, someone sticking it to the rich bastards! — and from here, he only becomes more unhinged.

Robert De Niro and Joaquin Phoenix

In all of his previous incarnations — in comics, on TV, in movies — I’ve never thought of the Joker as a cowardly person, yet that’s not the case here. He’s clearly a coward — and so is the movie that shelters him. Writer-director Todd Phillips, the Road Trip / The Hangover guru who’s clearly out of his league here, and co-scripter Scott Silver huff and puff and try to blow all sociopolitical issues into the filmic conversation, but the movie is all surface and ultimately doesn’t even have the power of its supposed convictions. Heath Ledger’s Joker, Jack Nicholson’s Joker, and even Jared Leto’s Joker (if memory serves, as I won’t be revisiting Suicide Squad at any point in this lifetime) all had no problem hurting innocent people — ditto another psycho who lived with his invalid “mother,” Norman Bates. But that’s not the case here. Arthur Fleck takes care to spare the few decent people in his life — an attractive neighbor (Zazie Beetz), a diminutive co-worker (Leigh Gill) — while reserving all his ire for the bad people. This includes Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), little Bat-Bruce’s dad and such a repellent character that you can’t wait for him to get shot in that alley (faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth, always the spark of humanity in Batman projects, also registers as a jerk). It’s a bald attempt by Phillips to make Arthur Fleck sympathetic, but that proves to be a major blunder.

Even while protecting Jodie Foster’s child prostitute, Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle was never sympathetic — his craziness and creepiness always remained front and center. But Phillips doesn’t want to alienate large segments of his audience — specifically, the white males who feel picked on by women, minorities, and well-to-dos, and who won’t be happy until they can bask in their self-entitlement — so he eases the brakes on Fleck’s otherwise all-encompassing derangement. Fleck is a terrible stand-up comic, but the movie still suggests that he deserves success regardless. Hey, I’ve long wanted to be a star wide receiver in the NFL, but that doesn’t mean I automatically deserve a spot on the Rams or Cowboys roster.

Joaquin Phoenix

Phoenix delivers an overall strong performance as Fleck/Joker, even if his actorly tics and Method mannerisms are often on full display. What’s missing from his portrayal — admittedly as much of a fault with the script as with his emoting — is any glimmer of intelligence behind those eyes. The character of the Joker works best as a brilliant counterpoint to the Dark Knight, someone whose brain is always working at Mach speed. Ledger conveyed this perfectly, and even Nicholson’s Joker, initially a mob flunky, was an expert on human nature, able to read, understand and act upon the flaws and frailties of other people. By contrast, Phoenix’s Joker seems rather dim-witted, hardly the stuff of supervillain legend.

Joker is exceedingly well-crafted, but the impressive technical achievements count for little in a movie that’s aimless and unfocused in its trendy nihilism. Like Fight Club, it will serve as a rallying cry for a certain subset of self-pitying males. But Fight Club is a movie that has been misdiagnosed and misinterpreted by those who champion it the most. Joker, on the other hand, clearly lays out its cards and tells these easily triggered jokers exactly what they want to hear. It offers sympathy for the devil — the one that dances in the pale moonlight.



  1. I agree with some of your criticisms. The Joker is not brilliant here and it makes the “birth of a legendary character” aspect of the movie significantly weaker. That being said, I don’t understand why the movie is not allowed to empathize with “white males who feel picked on by women, minorities, and well-to-dos”. This movie gave me a better understanding of what it’s like to be so ridiculously unlucky that not only do you have an awful disease, SPOILERS a history of abuse and neglect, and no purpose whatsoever, but also that the fulfillment of your sexual desires is so outside the realm of possibility that the only solution is to create a complex fantasy involving a girl you’ve hardly spoken to. END SPOILERS These men you refer to are on the cusp of mental illness. Regardless of how you feel about what factors they might ascribe to the genesis of their pain (lack of attention from women being the main offender) these people, for after all they do have a deeper status as “people” beyond their group identity as “men”, are in immense pain. And thus they deserve our sympathy. I give this movie a lot of credit for putting us in the shoes of these men, and maybe by understanding these people better, we can reduce the amount of school shooters and nihilistic violence being committed by this group.

    • Hi, Edward. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. Obviously, those who need help with mental issues should receive it, and it’s a shame our society — specifically, our government — doesn’t do more to help them. But these aren’t the people I meant in my sentence; these are not the ones that Todd Phillips is targeting. The operative words in my sentence fragment “specifically, the white males who feel picked on by women, minorities, and well-to-dos, and who won’t be happy until they can bask in their self-entitlement” are “feel” and “self-entitlement.” I’m referring not to those with serious mental problems but the run-of-the-mill trolls who usually identify themselves as MRAs, incels, white supremacists, etc. These people aren’t mentally ill; they’re just racist, sexist, xenophobic, and/or homophobic twits who employ Internet anonymity as their weapon of choice. The ones who attacked the recent ANNIE solely because the little girl was black; the ones who lambasted the GHOSTBUSTERS reboot solely because the leads were women; the ones who slammed BLACK PANTHER solely because it was about a black superhero; the ones who targeted CAPTAIN MARVEL solely because it was about a female superhero and Brie Larsen further triggered them with her not-unreasonable comments. Head to many of the negative reviews of JOKER that have been up for a few days, and you’ll see this ilk blasting the critics with all manner of vitriol — naturally, they save their greatest fury for the female critics, who have had to deal with being called everything from “cows” to “cunts.” These are the people to whom I refer, and these are the people who deserve no sympathy or respect.


  2. The lack of showing intelligence could be a product of his psychological state rather than innate intelligence. Think of people who regress in “psychological age” due to severe trauma—this seems to be a sufficient explanation for the criticism. Even after certain events occur in the movie, it is evident that Joker’s behavior changes compared to where he was earlier in the film.

  3. Sorry, but us white men are the true victims these days , not the ladies or the minorities or the Mexicans. “Joker” is our movie.

  4. I agree with everything said about Joker, but I think you’re misremembering Nicholson’s Joker from the 1989 Batman film. In Batman, the Joker is described (in his police file) as “highly intelligent with aptitude’s in science, chemistry, and art”. As Joker he devises a brilliant scheme to taint household beauty products with chemicals which are alone innocuous, but when use in combination create a deadly neurotoxin. His plan can’t be figured out by the police, and is only uncovered by Batman, because Batman in the 1989 film is an even greater detective. Before he becomes Joker he is shown to be a highly competent criminal whose ambitions are only thwarted because of his compulsive desire to murder people that he doesn’t need to, and because he’s caught having an affair with his boss’ girlfriend.

  5. “Arthur Fleck takes care to spare the few decent people in his life — an attractive neighbor (Zazie Beetz), a diminutive co-worker (Leigh Gill)”

    Pretty sure that is not true. It is heavily implied that Arthur killed Beetz’s character – a scene that is also mirrored in the Asylum at the end.

    • Thanks for writing, stranger. I’ve definitely seen tons of articles debating the issue, with the split about 50/50 on whether or not he did kill her (Pajiba interestingly has its two writers offer both “yes” and “no” theories). I personally don’t think he does because, as I noted elsewhere, the movie pulls most of its punches and wants audiences to like Joker to an extent. If he murdered Sophie (and possibly her child), viewers would lose all sympathy for him. Since he spared Gary, it follows that he would also spare Sophie.


  6. The people that you’re talking about, the ones that you made this movie for, they’re not mentally sound people. You say that they’re JUST all the -ists and all the -phobes, you dismiss them as JUST trolls, but trolling is a type of behaviour and it has a cause.

    First things first – I’m not saying that the incel/white supremacist types aren’t in the wrong. They do cause trouble for others, they do have a sense of entitlement, and their entire system of thinking is deeply flawed. The problem is that they feel as if they are victims of a failing society as well. They are people who cannot cope with the world as it exists and so they lash out. They are overgrown children, but they don’t choose to be overgrown children. It’s easy to have no sympathy with such a repugnant lot, but they’re still people.

    Society’s reaction to these people is to label them bad things and tell them that they’re terrible people. This only furthers their delusions of victimhood. They are not mentally fit people. It’s not like they could just stop being awful at any time, but that’s exactly how they’re treated, as if they could just choose not to be unwell and are simply too stubborn to. They are deficient and need help in coming to the conclusion that there is no world in which their behaviour is acceptable.

    This is really at the heart of the culture war. Everyone goes on assuming that the other side all know they’re the bad guys but refuse to admit it, or that they revel in the evil they cause. Such people are statistically very, very rare. They are called psychopaths. Sociopaths sometimes behave like this, but not all sociopaths are born such, and not all of them remain such their entire life. Their brains are not fundamentally hardwired different than ours, as is the case with psychopaths.

    Condemning any group of people, be they incels or TERFs, shows a lack of compassion. Every human behaves the way they do for a reason. It’s not wrong to punish people who know what they’re doing is wrong and choose to do it anyway. These are people who have become convinced that what they’re doing is right. The only real solution to this problem is to divest them of that thought.

    • So as long as they think they’re right and before we divest them of these thoughts, we should show compassion for a Klansman who kills a black man or a misogynist who rapes a woman? Give me a break.

  7. I agree with your synopsis. I found the movie strangely lacking something. Cunning? Phoenix lost too much weight, he came across as weak. I wasn’t terrified of him. I felt sorry for him. How is he later able to rally all the insane asylum folks? How is he to become a preacher to the disenfranchised? Most self proclaimed murderous, narcissistic profits have a certain amount of charisma. I feel like they rinsed out Joachin’s natural ruggedness and made him this pathetic caricature. He did the best with the script he had. The laughing was unbelievable. It felt practiced and rehearsed. The dancing was creepy and just weird. There are many movies where the main character loses weight, and does not lose brain cells. The Machinest comes to mind.

  8. I definitely agree with your review.. After hearing the hype, I was prepared to be blown away — but came away feeling disappointed. The film made me empathize with the Fleck character for sure, and how “the system” and those in his life failed him. It made me feel compassion for the mentally ill and their desire to fit in, and live life with the hand they’ve been dealt.

    While perhaps these themes would be well served in a different movie — they didn’t seem to fit the Joker character we’ve come to know from other movies, comics, cartoons, etc. Unless he makes some kind of radical transformation inside Arkham asylum, i find it hard to believe the Fleck character from his movie rises up to become the criminal mastermind that successfully battles Batman and the Gotham PD the way he is does in every other story out there..

    Fleck’s criminal and psychotic behavior shown in this movie was killing people he though “deserved” it — and it did not negatively affect him.. But he was shown to want to hold down a job, feel “normal” with the help of medication, take care of his mother, and date a woman.. Kind of normal things!

    But aside from the makeup — this origin story seems to be for someone different than the criminal that becomes Batman’s arch nemesis.. That part is just not believable, in my opinion..

    And oh yeah, Robert DeNiro is a tremendous actor, of course.. But his character didn’t seem to have the fun and engaging personality that all late night talk show hosts portray onscreen.. definitely miscast as you said.. Thanks!

  9. When I saw that DeNiro was in the movie I thought immediately it was a king of comedy remake and that it would probably suck. Little did I know that they would also make it as boring as Taxi Driver and as repulsive as the Machinist with a touch of the Master thrown in. The movie actually would have been good if they had cut out about 45 minutes and three packs of cigarettes. I thought the movie really was best at bringing home what it is like to have a real mental condition Thank God most people dont know what it’s like, but it really hit close to home for me. I liked the the plot twists and the abrupt violence reminded me of Animal Kingdom from Australia. But Jesus Christ how many cigarettes does he have to smoke, just because of one panel in one 1980’s graphic novel, and what the hell is wrong with his shoulder blade and why did they have to keep repeating themselves? I actually thought alot of the plot was very clever, and the mother son dynamic was very interesting. Anyhow the real villain was the editor who got too enamoured with all the beautiful footage and forgot to keep the movie within the range of the human bladder RIP Hitchcock. Now this is what we get.

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