On paper, hiring the director of The Hangover and Old School to make a Martin Scorsese-influenced (specifically, Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy) comic book origin story seems like an iffy proposition. But Todd Phillips has made one of the strongest comic book films in recent memory with Joker.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a mentally ill man working part-time as a party clown in 1981 Gotham City. Fleck has a condition that causes him to laugh loudly at random moments (he even has a card he hands out to strangers so they won't be as uncomfortable).
Much like 70s New York City, Gotham is in disarray. Garbage is piling up in the streets, people are out of work, and many public services (including mental health services) are being shut down. As a result, Fleck's visits with his social worker are cut off and so are his meds.
But it's not just the institutional issues that work against Fleck. He has a complicated relationship, to put it mildly, with his mother (Frances Conroy). There are also a number of dehumanizing incidents that occur on the streets of Gotham (he's beaten by teenage hoodlums, embarrassed during a disastrous attempt at stand-up comedy, and more).
The movie charts the slow erosion of Fleck's soul. There are no big action scenes or special effects. The world feels very real and lived in. Phoenix is excellent throughout. He conveys Fleck's awkwardness and creepiness without denying him his humanity. When Fleck has one of his laughing fits, Phoenix makes it seem physically painful.
The supporting performances are good, too. Robert DeNiro makes the most of limited screen time as smarmy talk show host Murray Franklin. Brian Tyree Henry turns in strong work in his one scene as a sympathetic but wary mental asylum records clerk. Brett Cullen also makes an impression as Gotham tycoon and mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Bruce's doomed dad), who bears at least a passing resemblance to Donald Trump in Phillips' vision.
There has been media hand-wringing ahead of Joker's release, with some writers fearing the film will inspire viewers to commit violence. As recently as 2017, the American Psychological Association disagreed with that assessment (and so does this critic). Art takes risks, art sometimes makes people uncomfortable, art sometimes offends people, art challenges us to see the humanity in bad people and the dark sides of good people. What art does not do is make non-violent people suddenly turn violent.
Even if you're not a fan of comic book movies, Joker is worth a look, especially for fans of early Martin Scorsese.