Many actors have played Batman's nemesis, the clown prince of darkness. Joaquin Phoenix's take on the villain will be remembered for years to come. The film, however, fades quickly like the makeup Arthur Fleck clean off his face often. Phoenix's magnetic performance is in service of nothing. Joker is an empty shell of a film that often thinks it is far more profound than it is.
Arthur Fleck is crazy from frame one of the film. Director Todd Phillips and co-screenwriter Scott Silver curiously avoid giving him an arc. We don't see Arthur shift into madness. We get no tension around the fate of his soul. This leaves the film without much tension or drama. Instead, the film repeats scenes of Arthur being hurt or hurting others until he makes his final, big reveal to the American public on a nightly talk show.
The talk show is Arthur's goal. He wants desperately to be a stand-up comedian. As his mother asks, "Don't you have to be funny?" Arthur is not funny. He is too twisted and mentally ill, nevertheless, Arthur tries to be a comedian. A video of him bombing at a nightclub catches the eye of talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). They show the clip on the nightly talk show and soon want to have Arthur on.
Joker routinely references three key films. There are the obvious parallels to Taxi Driver as we follow a mentally troubled character. However, The Joker doesn't have any of the moral ambiguity of that film, which made it the classic it is. By casting De Niro as a talk show host, the film openly references another Scorsese classic The King of Comedy. That film implicated the audience as much as its lead character for the madness around "making it big." The Joker isn't interested in such nuance. Finally, the film references The Dark Knight, stealing the glorious shot of the Joker hanging outside of a car window. The references to Scorsese are all over the place but Phillips doesn't seem to ever understand the humanity that makes his films work so well.
Joker ultimately feels empty as a result. It knows how to mimic a color palette to give it a gritty feel but the film never feels very daring. This is largely due to Arthur never being a complex moral character. Arthur's violent actions aren't tied to a kind of belief so even as the film shows civil unrest, it never ties this element to Arthur and his nasty deeds. He is apolitical in a film that circles the politics of class. The Wayne family is shoe-horned in to make this a DC property but Joker could have easily lost any connection to comic lore.
Joker is a mess but one thing is clear, Phoenix is giving the role his all. The physical nature of his performance is thrilling. Arthur laughs uncontrollably and the way that Phoenix morphs this from something he fights to keep into his final confident laugh is masterful. The performance suffers some for not having more purpose and meaning but that isn't Phoenix's fault. I honestly don't think Phillips knows what to do with him. Phoenix is the reason to see Joker if there is a reason at all. The film is pointless, joyless and heartless otherwise.