A comic-book movie without wit or action, Todd Phillips’ “Joker” is an origin story told as grim character study. When it’s over, you feel as if you’ve been carrying a burden; all that darkness on darkness, interspersed with brutal violence, feels like a heavy blanket on a hot night. I wanted to shove this movie aside, to be done with it.
And I suppose that means it works, to a certain degree: “Joker” is an exploration of what causes a lonely, unhinged man to explode, and it has moments that are riveting. These are almost entirely due to Joaquin Phoenix’s vivid work as the title character (most famously played on screen by an Oscar-winning Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight”). It’s a weird, eerie performance, as Phoenix’s often are; his Joker is both demented and strangely gentle, with a laugh that sounds like second cousin to a death rattle. Like Ledger, he has an uncanny way of making heavy clown makeup disappear, turning the greasepaint into a window to his dark soul.
We learn slowly how Joker, whose real name is Arthur Fleck, transitioned from sad loner to murderous madman, step by step: a disorder that causes him to laugh hysterically without feeling happy; delusional fantasies of success as a stand-up comedian on a popular TV talk show (hosted by a very Johnny Carson-like Robert De Niro) or of a romantic connection with his neighbor (Zazie Beetz); a weirdly intimate relationship with his wispy, deranged mother (Frances Conroy); a city — Gotham, looking like 1970s Manhattan — beset with rats and garbage; a dark history as an abused child. All of this is overlaid with the cruelty, sometimes casual, of those around him: His colleagues at the rent-a-clown agency where he works mock him; a group of kids beats him up; a trio of suits violently taunts him on the subway. In the third case, he finally fights back. “I killed those guys,” he says later, with his curiously childlike affect, “because they were awful.”
But while Phoenix is always more than watchable (his scary-Fred-Astaire dance moves, born from Arthur’s habit of watching old movies with his mother, are both mesmerizing and disturbing), “Joker” really has nowhere to go. Its characters are one-note cartoony, but fun is the last thing on this movie’s mind; it’s all despair, from its opening scenes on downward. Movies certainly have the right — indeed, the job — to explore all elements of the world they seek to reflect, including the very darkest. But “Joker,” aside from Phoenix, brings nothing new to the shadows, just elegantly filmed gunfire and blood — things we’ve seen before, all too often.
★★½ “Joker,” with Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy, Zazie Beetz, Brett Cullen. Directed by Todd Phillips, from a screenplay by Phillips and Scott Silver. 122 minutes. Rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images. Opens Oct. 3 at multiple theaters.