Warner Brothers has advertised a new Batman-associated movie called “Joker” for months. Recently there has been publicity about controversial violence in the film, which appeared in theaters last weekend.
Its director (and co-writer) Todd Phillips has made news replying to critics of movie violence. And Phillips’ association with the project was going to draw attention to it anyway.
He has given us a lot of good movies in the recent past — “The Hangover,” “Road Trip,” and “Old School,” for example. So no wonder the comic book movie fans among us were anxious to see what he did with one of the best-known villains in all superherodom. The Joker is the pasty-faced crook who we’ve seen portrayed by Caesar Romero, Heath Ledger, Jared Lito and Jack Nicholson.
The new movie, it turns out, is all about Joaquin Phoenix’s take on the larcenous laugher. His version is mentally unstable to begin with and going steadily more so as he loses his illusions about his mother and about his talent as a stand-up comic, and as he loses the support of his psychological case worker, whose job is sacrificed to government cuts.
He lives in what seems to be the early ’70s. That dating explains the music, which includes a couple of Cream songs and Gary Glitter’s once ubiquitous “Rock and Roll Part 2.” This Joker needs music because he is increasingly occupied with dancing.
The dancing is creepy. Phoenix seems remarkably scrawny and fluid. His character claims to have a condition which causes him to laugh at inappropriate moments.
This and the assertion of his mother (Frances Conroy) that he was born to make the world smile has got him working as a party clown and trying out at a tiny comedy club. His odd behavior and appearance get him beaten by groups a couple of times.
This happens on the subway the second time. And he has a revolver with him, which he uses on three disheveled young men who are later identified as “Wall Street” types.
Financial jealousy (in what the movie suggests are bad economic times) causes this killing to signal the start of riots against the rich, the look of which seem inspired by the “Occupy” movement of a few years back. “Occupiers” sometimes wore Guy Fawkes masks, in reference to another movie.
Here the protesters wear clown masks. Our anti-hero can escape the authorities by mingling with the hundreds of other guys dressed as tiny car drivers.
What the rioters do seems almost beside the point. The point is Phoenix’s imaginative and energetic writhing. He wriggles himself over to the gates of stately Wayne Manor to claim that Bruce’s father is also his, and he wiggles down to the television studio where he will be a guest on a late night talk show that is obviously based on Johnny Carson’s old “Tonight” show.
An hour into the film, viewers may well be bored. Events pick up in the second half. But ticket holders will be expecting two big events at the end of the movie. Neither occurs.
This isn’t to say there isn’t a climax. But it isn’t what the story has led us to expect, and it comes a little early. And then the film dithers away whatever charge its gory violence has earned it.
In fact, those who are serious about how movies are made are going to wonder if the last 20 minutes of “Joker” weren’t reshot or cobbled together out of footage intended to lead to other resolutions.
Certainly these viewers will note that Phillips has been watching Paddy Chayefsky’s masterpiece “Network.” And the movies the elder Wayne attends — “Modern Times,” the referential “Blow-Out” and “Zorro, the Gay Blade” — are all worth noting.
Not that one knows for sure why they were selected. Any more than one is sure why “Joker’s” Joaquin Phoenix dances.