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Joker movie review: No one's laughing in this bleak, violent spin-off

Joaquin Phoenix rises, but Batman is missed in this intense, visceral experience.

A comic book character, the guy who directed The Hangover, and an Oscar-nominated weirdo walk into a bar. What is this, says the barman, some kind of joke? Wait, I told it wrong. Let me start over. What do you get when you cross The King of Comedy with the clown prince of crime?

You get Joker, an R-rated superhero movie with no super and zero heroes that oozes out of DC comics, but leaves almost everything on the page. Director Todd Phillips -- the man behind comedies Starsky and Hutch, Old School and The Hangover movies -- reinvents the eternally popular Batman baddie by plonking Joaquin Phoenix into the mean streets of a vintage Martin Scorsese flick. The result is an intense, troubling movie with pretensions to be a modern-day Taxi Driver, complete with incendiary leading performance. 

The film has sparked divided reviews and a debate over its dark themes, causing the director to speak out and theaters to ban viewers from dressing up to see it. You can decide for yourself whether it merits this frenzied discussion as Joker is in theaters now.

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You talkin' to Joaquin?

Niko Tavernise

A retro Warner Bros. logo signals we're in the early 1980s. The people of Gotham City are swamped by a rising tide of garbage, literally and metaphorically. None more so than put-upon Arthur Fleck. He's just a gentle guy who likes to make people smile, whether he's taking a gun into a children's hospital or stalking his pretty neighbor. Arthur's lost in the margins among the graffiti and neon, trudging up endless steps and down mildewed corridors in a life of shadowed tenements, empty mailboxes and broken elevators. 

As the mentally ill and socially ignored Arthur, Phoenix burns a hole in the screen. From the opening moment when he cracks his mouth into an unnerving fake smile, the three-time Oscar nominee commands your attention. Minutes into the film, he suddenly flicks his eyes to meet the camera, and it's shiver-inducing. You almost don't want him looking at you.

Arthur is a clown by day and a stand-up comic by night, but nobody's laughing in this brutal metropolis. In some versions of the comic book character's origins, the man who would be Joker fell into chemicals that bleached his skin and hair and twisted his mouth into the distinctive rictus. There's nothing so comic-book-schlocky in this version. Here, the city is the inescapable vat in which Arthur flails. Indifference is the goop in which he drowns. Cynicism and cruelty are the acid burning him to the bone.

Seriously, everyone in this movie is miserable. They're queuing up to beat Arthur up, but the second time he's set upon the ground-down clown fights back. In the stuttering light of a rattling subway, Arthur shoots three boorish bankers, and a transformation begins. The shooting inadvertently sparks a movement as the downtrodden people of Gotham rise up against the rich. It's not the reaction Arthur wanted, but it's a reaction -- and he'll take it.

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Zazie Beetz and Joaquin Phoenix on the mean streets of Gotham.

Niko Tavernise

It's hugely unnerving the way Phoenix shifts moods so subtly, yet so completely. With each soul-crushing rejection his face imperceptibly darkens, his whole physical shape transforming with a roll of his shoulder. One of Arthur's many problems is a condition causing him to laugh at inappropriate times, and Phoenix gives his all to this anguished tic. He giggles through tears, guffaws in pain, hoots with great wracking sobs dredged from the depths of his contorted, hunched skeleton. His skin stretched taut across protruding bone, he seems to store up tension with every passing indignity, violence coiling inside Arthur as if he were Travis Bickle's less well-adjusted little brother.

Now playing: Watch this: Joker character coming to life in final trailer
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After the first burst of brutal violence, Arthur dances, the first glimpse of a new Arthur with renewed confidence. His movements are elegant, his emaciated frame now lithe, lissom, graceful. He watches himself in the mirror, just as we watch him on screen. Later on his journey to becoming Joker, he dances through the streets resplendent in a blood-colored suit. He's swaggering, confident, cool. You know you're going to see this Joker at Halloween this year, and at conventions for years to come.

It's an instantly iconic look, distinct from the Jack Nicholson, Jared Leto and Heath Ledger versions that came before. The red and yellow outfit echoes the sickly walls of the Arkham mental hospital, just one of many stunning details in the slick production design. Sure, you've heard this one before, but even as a pastiche of far superior 1970s and 1980s New York films, Joker still looks amazing. 

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Knock, knock. Who's there? A million cosplayers!

Niko Tavernise

After the subway shooting, a witness sketch presents an image of Arthur as a be-fanged horror. When he sees it, Arthur bares his teeth to contort himself into looking more like the image. It's a feedback loop of misguided misidentification that spirals out of control as rioters don clown masks, spurring Arthur on yet again. Everybody sees what they want, their rage mirrored and multiplied. Some people just can't take a joke.

Possibly the film makes its most effective point by depicting the media as unable to resist someone with a schtick. "I don't believe in anything," Joker admits. "I just thought it would be good for my act." In these polarized times that's a phrase that could be uttered by any number of attention-hungry opportunists, from Reddit to the White House. Joker is certainly a film of our time -- and the secret of comedy is, after all, timing. 

The question is whether Joker has anything to say about our times. In Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, the Joker was a malevolent agent of chaos desperate to prove people are terrible. But the film took a firm stance, showing the people of Gotham refusing to blow up each other. Nolan's film definitively condemned the Joker and his bleak worldview as charismatic but wrong.

Philips' film, by contrast, doesn't seem to know what it's trying to prove. Yes, Arthur is disturbed and violent. But everybody else is cynical, mistrusting and cruel. A social worker barely notices Arthur. A mother snaps at him when he tries to cheer up her kid. Even the two fatherlike figures Arthur obsesses over, tycoon Thomas Wayne and chat show host Murray Franklin (played, fittingly, by Taxi Driver and King of Comedy star Robert De Niro), turn out to be smug and superior. The rich are terrible and the people are even worse -- a frothing rabble of rioters, looters and murderers who barely need an excuse to tip into savagery.

Philips does an impressively unnerving job of building tension and menace toward the inevitable explosion, and there's a devastating rug-pulling twist. But the film wobbles over who's ultimately the butt of the joke, messing up the punchline when it comes to deciding whether Arthur is a pathetic loser or a righteous victim/hero. There's an element of ambiguity in the ending, but it feels less like a genuine artistic statement and more like one of several cringy attempts to be edgy, like a song by convicted pedophile Gary Glitter on the soundtrack.

The movie soars free of capes and other superhero nonsense, but it's hard to see the point being made when there's no heroic Batman representing the other side of the scarred coin (to borrow a motif from a different bat-villain). Joker is intense and unnerving and a radical entry into the superhero genre, but come on, Taxi Driver was 40 years ago. Maybe that joke isn't funny anymore.

Originally published Sept. 28.