Move over, Pennywise. The scariest movie clown of all time has arrived in theaters (and IMAX) and his name is Joker. Actually, his name is Arthur Fleck, and he’s played with frightening precision by methodical method actor Joaquin Phoenix in the ultimate origin story, “Joker” (WB/DC Universe). A bit on the white pancake make-up nose, “Joker” is as serious as a heart attack, which is both good and bad for comic book geeks and novices alike.
Falling into the latter category, it’s safe to say from that perspective, “Joker” is a fascinating portrait of a descent into madness, almost rivaling Donald Trump’s unraveling. Fleck is a tragic character, struggling with mental illness, who has never felt seen or been happy in his whole miserable life. Living with his mother Penny (Frances Conroy) in the dangerous and dirty Gotham City of 1981, he earns a meager living as clown. Sometimes twirling a sign outside of a business, sometimes dancing for sick children in a hospital.
Fleck’s ambition is for a career in stand-up comedy, but he lacks in virtually every aspect of such a calling. That doesn’t stop him from idolizing comedian-turned-late-night-talk-show-host Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro in a brilliant bit of casting as “Joker” feels strongly connected to both “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy”) or fantasizing about a female neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz) who lives down the hall.
Arthur’s overactive imagination is no match for reality, which includes the end of his sessions with his social worker and the loss of his meds due to budget cuts. There is also his relationship with his co-workers, such as Randall (Glenn Fleshler), who gives him a gun for protection following a mugging. Additionally, he has to deal with his mother’s obsession with one-percenter and her former employer Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), who has announced his bid for mayor of Gotham City.
Long simmering under his fragile veneer, Arthur’s rage surfaces following a violent subway encounter with three Wall Street-types, one of whom serenades the clown costumed Arthur with a rendition of “Send In the Clowns” (the movie’s gayest moment!). Arthur shoots and kills all three in what is seemingly an act of self-defense. But instead of reporting it to the police, Arthur runs and is branded a vigilante.
A mass murderer is born. With each slaying, including his mother (who has been harboring an unspeakable secret) and a co-worker, Arthur is more empowered and unrepentant. Boosting his newfound celebrity, Murray airs a clip on his show of Arthur bombing (and laughing all the way) during a stand-up gig at a club. The clip is so popular that Arthur is invited to be on Murray’s show where he is asked to be introduced as Joker.
Saying anything more would reveal gruesome and shocking details that should be seen firsthand. With “Joker”, director and co-screenwriter Todd Phillips makes a complete leap from frat house comedy director to full-on horror master with a somber movie that is destined be controversial from the opening credits until then. You’ve been warned.