Going into Joker, which serves as an origin story for Batman’s archnemesis, one shouldn’t expect it to be any laughing matter. It’s meant to be a bleak look at how the Clown Prince of Crime began his reign of terror. As it turns out, bleak is all the movie is. It lacks depth even as it tries to make it seem like it possesses insightful commentary. Particularly about incel culture, mental illness, and how our inhumane world shuns mental illness victims. Yet, it never goes beneath the surface of the conversations it wants to engage in.
Also, with its portrait of an antisocial city dweller trying to navigate his way around a crumbling city, it’s clear Joker wants to be a Taxi Driver clone. So much so that they even have Robert de Niro in a small supporting role. It references Taxi Driver to the point where it feels like a near carbon copy. We get an early scene of him writing in his diary with voiceover narration and sequences of him wandering his apartment the way Travis Bickle does.
Its heavy-handed homaging makes it feel more unnecessary than it already is. One of the most fascinating aspects of the Joker is that in the various incarnations of him in the comics, little is known about his backstory, his motivation for being evil, or even his real name. It’s like the filmmakers made a Scorsese copycat and weaved in comic book elements to make the plagiarism seem a bit less obvious.
As for Joaquin Phoenix who plays the titular antagonist, he’s quite committed even if he’s acting with a capital A. Phoenix is in full force as an unhinged psychopath yet there are moments where his performance feels overdone which is an easy trap to fall into when playing someone who’s mentally ill. Unlike everyone else in the film, though, he still has a character to play. Almost every supporting player is wasted with the actresses getting the rawest deal out of all of them.
Both Frances Conroy and Zazie Beetz are given so little to do that the characters they play hardly even classify as characters. Between the two of them, Frances Conroy, who plays Arthur’s ailing mother, is given more of an opportunity to elevate how her character is written on the page. Zazie Beetz also does fine work despite her character being a love interest with no agency. Sadly, it’s not the only film Beetz has been in this year that badly wastes her.
If there are any major positives, it’s the haunting score from Hildur Guonadottir. The sound of screeching violins consistently mirrors the Joker's feelings of frenetic melancholy. Also, the cinematography by Lawrence Sher attempts to make the harsh environment that Arthur lives in seem alluring with its continuous use of the color blue. Sher’s lighting is a source of beauty in what is an incredibly ugly movie.
By the time Joker was over, it left me feeling incredibly empty. I felt hollow and completely void of emotion just like the movie itself. Joker is repulsive, cynical garbage that tries acting more meaningful than it actually is. There may be those who recognized the message about our society it was trying to get across and more power to them. Whatever that message is, though, remains unclear.