In “Joker,” Joaquin Phoenix uncorks a laugh that can take several years off your life. His character, a beaten-down professional clown named Arthur Fleck, is robbed of his dignity multiple times a day, and to each insult he responds with a distressed mechanical cackle. It’s supposed to signal gaiety; it only broadcasts Arthur’s misery, his distance from other people, and coursing beneath it all, his rage.
By the end of this ponderous, grimly mesmerizing film from director Todd Phillips (the “Hangover” movies), Arthur will have morphed into the Joker, the pasty-faced pulp villain and Batman nemesis whose origin story this is. If the Marvel/Disney comic-book movies tend toward the chromium brio of the “Avengers” series, the DC superhero movies purveyed by Warner Bros. have taken their cue over the years from the 1986 revisionist graphic novel “The Dark Knight Returns,” and they are very dark indeed. “Joker” is the culmination of that approach, a slab of self-important pop-culture masonry whose only bright spot is the figure dancing brilliantly along its top.
Phoenix always brings existential weight to his performances, and here he uses that slow-moving melancholy in powerful and moving ways. The publicity materials say he lost 50 pounds for the role, a fact that is relevant only in the way Phoenix uses Arthur’s gauntness — the ribs that stick out like a shipwreck, the arms awkwardly akimbo — as the physical manifestation of the character’s alienation. The movie takes place in a Gotham City that is essentially Manhattan circa 1977 — garbage strikes and graffiti, a mood of dog-eat-dog survivalism — and Arthur is the ultimate victim at the bottom of the urban food chain. Kids steal his signboard and beat him up. Women look at him and quickly look away. As a clown, he’s more scary than funny.
So, yes, “Joker” functions as an homage to/remake of Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” minus the complexities but with other period-appropriate elements folded in: “Death Wish,” “The King of Comedy,” New York subway shooter Bernie Goetz. Even Robert De Niro is here, a direct referent to Scorsese-land, as Murray Franklin, the genially corrupt host of the late-night talk show that Arthur watches with his shut-in mother (Frances Conroy) and dreams of appearing on.
All this footnoting and nudge-nudging only serves to exhaust a viewer, because it never comes to a point other than to show us, hey, this is how the Joker got started. As a vision, it’s second-hand. “Joker” nevertheless suckers a viewer in with a sense of clammy dread, propelled by the central performance and by Lawrence Sher’s diseased but detailed camerawork. The film could be occurring solely in its antihero’s head and in a sense it is. As Arthur acquires a pistol, carries out his first spasmodic acts of violence, and feels a thrill of power run through his veins, the film rattles along a subway track that may or may not be the same one the rest of the world is riding.
Certainly his burgeoning relationship with Sophie (Zazie Beetz), the single mother down the hall, seems too good to be true. And while a mid-movie revelation of Arthur’s parentage might satisfy his and the fanboys’ need for closure, the script by Phillips and Scott Silver is smart enough to know things are rarely that easy.
“Joker” has a reliable cast: De Niro and Conroy; Shea Whigham and Bill Camp as police detectives sniffing around; Brian Tyree Henry (“Atlanta”) and Glenn Fleshler (“Billions”) in small roles; lesser-known actors briefly glimpsed as young Bruce Wayne and his parents. Few of them are given anything interesting to do beside hit their marks and push the martyred Arthur further along his Pilgrim’s Regress. This is especially true of Beetz’s Sophie, for reasons I can’t divulge, and it’s a little ironic that De Niro has been miscast as everyone’s favorite TV uncle at a time when he’s receiving some of the best early reviews of his career for “The Irishman,” an actual Martin Scorsese movie.
For all the hype that has been erected around the movie by studio flacks and an excitable fan-base, “Joker” has very little there there aside from Phoenix’s high-wire performance. As Arthur morphs with violence and confidence into the Joker, he occasionally drifts into a balletic dance — a dreamy, eyes-closed soft-shoe of triumph. It’s a bit that riffs off the late Heath Ledger’s Joker in “The Dark Knight” (2008) — a generational landmark of a performance — but that in Phoenix acquires a deeper, more inconsolable madness. This Joker has a ruined poetry to him that makes his victimhood seem a badge of honor and his homicidal urges seem a just, if horrifying, form of retribution.
Which is a far simpler state of affairs than, say, “Taxi Driver,” and one more easily misunderstood. Despite the setting, “Joker” is very much a movie of our moment; it speaks to the way tenderized souls in callous times can be warped or bullied into the worst possible version of themselves. But it’s also a singular failing of the times, our popular culture, and this movie that that worst self comes costumed as a supervillain, a figure only the naive won’t admit is just another kind of superhero. Arthur’s eerie dance is supposed to unfold to music only he can hear, but it sings out loud and clear, no matter what the people who made “Joker” believe.
Directed by Todd Phillips. Written by Phillips and Scott Silver. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy. At Boston theaters, Coolidge Corner, suburbs, Jordan’s IMAX Reading and Natick. 121 minutes. R (strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language, brief sexual images)