Perhaps the most significant change director Todd Phillips makes in this reinvention of the Joker origin story is the choice to pluck it from the stylized, larger-than-life streets of comic-book Gotham City and set it in a gritty, grimy, recognizably American metropolis. Sure, it's still called Gotham, but Phillips takes the dark vision of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy and cranks the bleak quotient to 11, recreating the New York City of early Martin Scorsese films like Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. The gritty production design by Mark Friedberg and washed-out street scenes of cinematographer Lawrence Sher suggest that despite its comic book subject, this film is going to take a hard look at how a cold, pitiless society can drive an anonymous Everyman to madness. Instead, what we get is a series of tropes and clichés that render everyone—including the titular homicidal clown—little more than caricatures.
In the hands of screenwriters Phillips and Scott Silver, sad-sack clown-for-hire Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) begins his transformation into the Clown Prince of Crime already deeply flawed. Mentally ill, including an unspecified condition that causes him to cackle uncontrollably at the slightest stress, Arthur alienates everyone he encounters. He carries with him what he calls his “joke book”: a therapist-mandated journal filled with pornographic magazine clippings, bad puns and rambling manifesto-style rants. Fleck resents his smothering mother (Frances Conroy) with whom he lives, stalks the single mom, who has given him no more encouragement than polite eye contact on the elevator, from the apartment next door (Zazie Beetz) and fantasizes about a career as a stand-up comedian like his hero, late-night talk-show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, taking over the Jerry Lewis role he played against in Scorsese's The King of Comedy), despite his apparent lack of comedic talent.
The plot from here amounts to little more than a contrived, non-stop series of humiliations intended to justify Arthur's eventual embrace of violent homicide as a coping mechanism: in clown costume, he's beaten up by a gang of street kids, loses his clown gig, and, attempting to amuse a child on the bus, is warned off by the child's suspicious mom, triggering a hysterical laughing fit. He is then informed by his social worker that funds have been cut for both his therapy and his meds.
When he is assaulted on the subway, in costume, by a trio of Wall Street wolves who accompany their attack, Clockwork Orange-style, with an unlikely multiverse rendition of Sondheim's Send in the Clowns, Arthur finally responds, in shades of the Subway Vigilante Bernhard Goetz, with the revolver. The effect on him is immediate and exhilarating, expressing itself in florid, balletic movements. In short order, the Joker has discovered his calling, and inadvertently becomes a symbol for Occupy-style protests against Gotham's one-percenters.
References and allusions to historical events, art forms and other films such as these are often used to broaden the scope of a film's themes or meanings. Here, they seem like parlor tricks, because at its core, Joker does not seem to have any real themes or meanings. Phillips and Silver raise issues such as the '70s deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, the reduction of social services funding, the Occupy Wall Street movement and the psychological effects of everyday violence, but to what end? Do bullies on the subway deserve to die? Even glimpses of Arthur's journal offer little insight into Arthur's troubled mind. In a strictly comic-book way, at this point, Arthur is just “CRAAAAZY!”
Phoenix, the very model of a modern method actor, fully embraces this role as the ultimate outsider, yet the portrayal remains strictly external. Gaunt to the point of emaciation, elbows and shoulder blades nearly protruding through his skin, Phoenix dances and writhes and rages with abandon. In tighty-whities and, eventually, in iconic purple suit, this Joker, like the movie itself, offers a memorable spectacle, but little more.