Joker Joaquin Phoenix Film Venice Todd Phillips

Image still from Joker

Jok­er’ hurts deep on an emo­tion­al level

Review: The most anticipated movie of the year made its world premiere at Venice Film Festival this weekend. It’s not for kids.

Rat­ing: 55

First things first, a pref­ace: this movie is only loose­ly based on DC Comics char­ac­ter the Joker.

Are there killings? Yes. Riots? You bet. Music video-like scenes that glo­ri­fy vio­lence? For a minute. But there isn’t an overindulgence.

Jok­er – like his tra­di­tion­al neme­sis Bat­man – has no super­hero pow­ers, except maybe delud­ing him­self from reality.

He doesn’t have green hair because he fell into a vat of chem­i­cals – the character’s most com­mon­ly used back­sto­ry – but because he dyes his hair green in his bath­room. And that mani­a­cal laugh­ter? It’s no reverb or smoke machines: he car­ries around a lam­i­nat­ed card explain­ing his con­vul­sions to be a med­ical dis­or­der. It’s all rule-break­ing from there­on in.

Direct­ed by Todd Phillips (Road Trip, Old School, The Hang­over), Jok­er sees Joaquin Phoenix play Arthur Fleck: a clown who lives with his men­tal­ly ill moth­er in the oppres­sive ear­ly 80s of Gotham City. He aspires to be a standup come­di­an, but his audi­ence laugh at him – not with him. One awful clip shows him bomb­ing on stage: I hat­ed school as a kid, but my mom told me that I had to get a job when I grow up. But I told her, I’m going to be a comedian.”

Fleck gets his name Jok­er” when the city’s late-night TV host Mur­ray Franklin (Robert de Niro) plays a clip from his set on live tele­vi­sion, telling him: Hey jok­er, lis­ten to your mom.” Every­one laughs and Fleck ends up on TV after view­ers want to see more. Standup com­e­dy nerds will rev­el in the comedic his­to­ry: the standup scene was shot at the leg­endary Dangerfield’s com­e­dy club in Mid­town, while the cur­tains on the late-night show strike a sim­i­lar­i­ty to John­ny Carson’s late-night Tonight Show. Ref­er­ences bring to mind the absur­dist com­e­dy of Andy Kauf­mann and Lenny Bruce. 

Things get weird after Fleck gets jumped by teenage kids and a friend gives him a gun to pro­tect him­self. When he uses it on the sub­way – fol­low­ing an attack by a group of Wall Street bros – it leads to rich ver­sus poor protests on the streets, and Fleck becomes an under­ground hero.

Rather than watch­ing super­heroes bat­tle between good and evil, how­ev­er, the film goes deep­er to our own inner demons. It’s a char­ac­ter pro­file, detail­ing the life of a bro­ken per­son in a bro­ken soci­ety and the creepi­est parts of the movie are when Phoenix’s Fleck is alone with him­self. The only ene­my is that within.

There are no high-speed chas­es, mak­ing this read­ing of one of DC’s most leg­endary vil­lains feel like a sober­ing dose of real­i­ty. This isn’t for kids look­ing for a roller­coast­er ride. It forces its audi­ence to grow up or slow down – and it hurts deep on an emo­tion­al lev­el, too.

Jok­er is released in the UK on 4th October

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