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'Joker' review: Movie packs plenty of laughing fits, delivers no punchline

Joaquín Phoenix stars as the titular comic book

Joaquín Phoenix stars as the titular comic book villain in "Joker." Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures/Warner Bros. Pictures / Niko Tavernise

PLOT In a festering Gotham City, a disturbed loner turns to violence.

CAST Joaquín Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz

RATED R (strong violence)

LENGTH 2:01

BOTTOM LINE A ghastly-good Phoenix can’t save this slice of faux social commentary.

Todd Phillips’ “Joker” arrives in theaters Friday as the year’s most dangerous movie. The origin story of how a mentally ill loner named Arthur Fleck became Batman’s arch-nemesis, “Joker” has raised concerns that it might inspire other lone-wolf types to commit real-world violence. For a comic-book movie, “Joker” certainly pushes buttons — gun violence, income inequality, health care, you name it — in an attempt to create a work of incendiary social commentary.

Instead, the movie is like Arthur’s uncontrollable laughing fits: irritating, inappropriate and just a beat too late.

That laugh comes courtesy of Joaquín Phoenix, and it’s a doozy — somewhere between a giggle and a retch. Phoenix may not erase Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning Joker in 2008's “The Dark Knight,” but he puts a memorably ghastly stamp on this incarnation. Stringy-haired and skeletally thin (thanks to a 52-pound weight loss), Phoenix radiates a sickly, love-starved energy as Arthur, an aspiring stand-up comic and part-time clown whose mere presence seems to inspire loathing and cruelty. During a gig twirling an “Everything Must Go” sign in full circus regalia, Arthur is robbed and brutally beaten by a gang of kids.  

“Is it just me,” he wonders, “or is it getting crazier out there?” He’s referring to Gotham City, a rotting, crime-ridden stand-in for early 1980s Manhattan — or, in the movie’s view, Contemporary America. It’s a place where guys like Arthur and his ailing mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), struggle to survive while wealthy men such as mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (aka Batman’s dad, played by Brett Cullen) look down from on high.

"Joker" wants to make a statement of some kind, but its ideas are largely derived from better, smarter, more incisive films. Arthur is a homegrown psycho straight out of "Taxi Driver," whose star, Robert De Niro, appears here as television host Murray Franklin, himself a nod to "The King of Comedy." Franklin's show, in turn, will echo the dark absurdity of "Network." There are also shades of "A Clockwork Orange," "Death Wish" and, as Arthur's turn to violence inspires clown-masked copycats, "The Purge." Sophie Dumond (a barely used Zazie Beetz), a pretty neighbor who catches Arthur's eye, is an idealized female you'll recognize from any number of movies.

The problem isn't with Phillips' direction, which crackles more than you might expect from the man behind "The Hangover," but with his muddled script, written with Scott Silver. "Joker" combines ugly bloodshed with superficially topical themes, but its world view ("Everyone is awful," according to Arthur) is simplistic and adolescent. The outrage feels borrowed, false, a pose.

By the time De Niro's Franklin engages Arthur in a rather pedantic argument and gives voice to what most of us were feeling ("Everyone is not awful!"), it's too late. To quote another Joker: Why so serious?

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