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‘Joker’ is mostly derivative

Nobody is laughing or crying or caring

<p>While Joaquin Phoenix delivers a strong performance, the new DC Comics-derived film suffers from a lackluster screenplay. &nbsp;</p>

While Joaquin Phoenix delivers a strong performance, the new DC Comics-derived film suffers from a lackluster screenplay.  

“Joker” entered theaters Friday with considerable fanfare — the film had an award-winning premiere at the Venice Film Festival, various media outlets have been speculating as to its potential cultural impact for a month and some law enforcement agencies have assessed extremist threats of violence inspired by the film’s release. Such an exaggerated and motley pedigree would normally precede a film worthy of some sort of strongly-worded review, but the only words that appropriately describe “Joker” are synonyms for “mild.”

“Joker” is a psychological thriller inspired by the DC Comics character of the same name. The film has an original story, and includes very few references to any DC Comics lore. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a party clown living with his mother Penny (Frances Conroy) in Gotham City, a socially and financially deteriorating simulacrum of New York City from the 1980s. Arthur suffers from an unspecified collection of mental illnesses and disorders that leave him constantly depressed but paradoxically force him into uncontrollable fits of laughter. Pushed to the brink by a society he believes has abandoned him, Arthur starts lashing out, rising into inadvertent infamy and descending into violent madness.

The plot of “Joker” is best described as wandering, closely following Arthur as he reaches for shifting goals and stumbles over obstacles, swaying with his mood. In this manner, the film maintains a constant focus on Joaquin Phoenix, who turns in a remarkable performance. With a wide array of smooth and jittery physical mannerisms and vocal inflections, Phoenix captures everything from the heights of painful giddiness to the lows of awkward self-pity, from wild raving madness to quiet brooding. The one downside of Phoenix’s command of the audience’s attention is that some background details, particularly those involving the setting, feel missing or underdeveloped, which in turn leaves some of the climactic moments confusing or underwhelming.

But the real problem with “Joker” is the screenplay, which is neither particularly interesting nor original. The film draws inspiration from Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy” in much the same way that a wooden chair “draws inspiration” from an oak tree. Many of the plot’s more subversive turns are thuddingly obvious, a choice of words which, as a quick aside, is absolutely influenced by the film’s thudding background music. Some scenes are so contrived and employ such cringe-inducingly awkward dialogue that they barely rise above the level of fan fiction.

“Joker” certainly has the tools to drum up tension and set the heart pounding and the blood pumping — but it’s all setup and no punchline. The film portentously ponders some grand message about society and systems of oppression, but can only deliver that message through extremely generic platitudes and rough, unclever dialogue. Arthur Fleck wants to lay bare some kind of ugly truth, something that the audience should be enraptured and disgusted by, but the film totally lacks an essential sense of verisimilitude. The society and characters of “Joker” simply don’t feel real, so anything horrible about them feels like it bears no relation to any terrible truth of reality.

In sum, “Joker” is striking but not moving, tense but not horrifying and noticeable but not interesting. Not a bad film by any measure, and possibly worthwhile for Joaquin Phoenix’s dynamic performance alone, but ultimately reminiscent of a dozen other films and comics that would make for much better use of the audience’s time.