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“Joker” is a cinematic dead end. An exploitation movie without a sense of humor, a satire without a point, a hollow story with no empathic protagonist, and a shallow rip-off of Martin Scorsese’s “King of Comedy” and “Taxi Driver" put together, here is a movie that doesn’t begin to meet the criteria of meaningful art. Casting Robert De Niro as a television talk show host à la Jerry Lewis in “King of Comedy” comes across as a cheap stunt — a really cheap bit.
Set in an early ‘80s era that never happened, the film follows mentally ill Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix). Getting all the rejection he requires is high on Arthur’s daily list of things to do. Arthur wants to be a stand-up comic but hasn’t any aptitude for the gig. It doesn’t help that one of his litany of medical woes includes Arthur laughing uncontrollably in social situations.
Homicidal thoughts lead to a series of killings after Arthur gets a gun. However, if you’re looking for an anti-gun theme, you’re on your own. It would also be a stretch to make a case for “Joker” putting a fine point on the mistreatment and neglect that America treats its mentally ill.
I’m curious what Michael Haneke or Lars von Trier would have to say about “Joker,” considering the rigor with which each filmmaker has employed in their trenchant social satires (see Haneke’s “Funny Games” or von Trier’s “Manderlay”). My guess it that neither filmmaker would have any favorable words for such an insipid film as this.
Some audiences may marvel at Joaquin Phoenix’s willingness to put his personal demons so publicly on display but, based on his wince-inducing Golden Globes speech, the type-casting on display just cuts too close to the bone. This movie can make you feel sick — vomit-in-your-seat sick.
Naturally, Arthur has parental issues. He takes care of his ailing, also mentally ill, mother when he isn’t trying to track down his biological dad. Could it be that his father is the millionaire Thomas Wayne, father to Batman? Yawn.
You can blame this film's kitchen sink narrative design on “Joker’s” basis in DC Comics characters, but screenwriters Scott Silver (“8 Mile”) and Todd Phillips are clearly shooting from the hip with a hack cavalier attitude that openly insults their audience.
Cinema is dead. Here's your proof.
Rated R. 122 mins.