A vexatious Joaquin Phoenix dominates this dystopian character study ripped from the pages of comic-book fiction.



Funny how?: Joaquin Phoenix


Beware the multiplex – there are evil clowns about. While Pennywise is still scaring the pants off children in It Chapter Two, there’s a new comedian in town – with a young Bruce Wayne in his sights. This is the backstory of the Joker, originally personified on the small screen by Cesar Romero and on the big in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) and David Ayer's Suicide Squad (2016). There is something about the Joker –aka Arthur Fleck – that attracts actors of merit: the Oscar-winning Jack Nicholson and Jared Leto and, in his penultimate film, Heath Ledger, who posthumously won the Academy Award for his portrayal.


For his stab at the part, Joaquin Phoenix lost 52 pounds, which should automatically guarantee him an Oscar nomination. Flaunting his naked torso at frequent intervals, Phoenix resembles an insect from behind, his shoulder blades protruding like the bony legs of a grasshopper. Phoenix has traditionally cut a disconcerting presence on screen, so here his psychopath arrives pre-damaged, distressed and off his trolley. Perhaps a braver, more intelligent casting choice would have been to hire a more instantly likeable actor, so that Fleck’s gradual degradation and humiliation – and descent into evil – would have made a more interesting emotional trajectory.


As it is, the film is neither a true edition of the comic-book genre, nor a valid commentary on mental ill health – it hovers, somewhat leisurely, between the two. This is a fantasy universe firmly set in 1981: both Zorro, The Gay Blade and Brian De Palma’s Blow Out are glimpsed on a cinema marquee. Likewise, Gotham City feels decidedly like New York, with recognisable subway stations en route (Brooklyn’s Bedford Park Boulevard, for instance). And besides Joaquin’s chilling, hollow laugh, much of the emotional heavy lifting is provided by vocal contributions from Jimmy Durante, The Ink Spots and Frank Sinatra, instantly recognisable touchstones from the real world.


Joker, directed by Todd Phillips and produced by Phillips and Bradley Cooper, is not the first film to make a familiar villain its centrepiece. Disney got there first with Maleficent, in which Angelina Jolie played the wicked fairy godmother from Sleeping Beauty. The latter showed how a benevolent spirit was corrupted by betrayal, while the film itself retained the essence of the traditional fairy tale, with style, humour and excitement. It’s hard to imagine who could be drawn to the grim workings of Joker, other than unswerving fans of Joaquin Phoenix. Displaying shades of Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy and The Purge, the film could not be darker, and Arthur Fleck is a tiresome protagonist to spend quality time with. Only in the last act does Joker emerge as the colourful villain beloved by fans of comic-book escapism. It’s hard, too, to buy this Joker as the criminal mastermind as decreed by the original DC Comic. So what we get is a lot of acting and not much of a story.




Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Bill Camp, Shea Whigham, Marc Maron, Douglas Hodge, Josh Pais, Leigh Gill, Sondra James, Dante Pereira-Olson, Sharon Washington, Hannah Gross, Brian Tyree Henry, April Grace.


Dir Todd Phillips, Pro Todd Phillips, Bradley Cooper and Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Screenplay Todd Phillips and Scott Silver, Ph Lawrence Sher, Pro Des Mark Friedberg, Ed Jeff Groth, Music Hildur Guðnadóttir, Costumes Mark Bridges.


DC Films/Village Roadshow Pictures/Bron Creative/Joint Effort-Warner Bros.

121 mins. USA/Canada. 2019. Rel: 4 October 2019. Cert. 15.