Maybe there’s a good movie to be had by delving into the psyche of a sociopath who turns to violence when he feels betrayed by society, but I’m not sure the director of the Hangover is the guy to bring it to us. While better writers than me have tackled a lot of the issues surrounding the film, I think the biggest problem I had is that it raises all sorts of interesting concepts without actually having anything to say about them. It’s provocative by being provocative without attempting to look at anything deeper. It wants to be an indictment on depravity even as it celebrates it. Couple that with how dark (in every way) and bleak the film is, it’s a mostly miserable experience, even as it’s anchored by an(other) amazing turn by Joaquin Phoenix.

Part of the fascination of the Joker as a character was the mystery surrounding his origins. It was always hinted at, but never explicitly stated. But with Joker, even as an alternative universe sort of tale, it is laid out in grim detail. It’s a disingenuous take, since it only seeks to leverage an existing character (and his relationship to arguably the biggest superhero of all time) for the sake of notoriety. Phoenix is a loser named Arthur an awkward clown in the early 80s that can’t succeed in that career or in his attempt at being a comedian. He yearns to be on the late-night show of Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) as he watches from home with his ailing mother (Frances Conroy). As one by one everything in his life goes to shit, Arthur loses his grip on morality and moves towards evilness as Gotham City celebrates him as hero for the downtrodden.

Phoenix, all limbs and ribs, is truly excellent, stepping into the big floppy clown shoes of the Joker that have been filled by many iconic actors, but most notably Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger. His take lacks the camp of most iterations, but without the heroic balance Batman always provided (even though a young Bruce Wayne makes an appearance) it feels like the film is holding up the Joker and his list of violent acts as some form vigilante champion.

Director Todd Phillips (who co-wrote the scipt with Scott Silver) lays out a tale that wants to be a modern-day Taxi Driver (casting De Niro is no coincidence) but lacks the nuance that Scorsese brought to his film. Instead we get continued focus on a downtrodden white dude that turns to violence when he feels betrayed by the world and the whole thing just feels a little obvious and uncomfortable right now. If it spent more time on the why of it all or didn’t give so much focus to praising murder (even if it’s of assholes) it might sit a little better.

My Grade – C-

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