Review: 'Joker' Has Nothing To Say, And Says It Loudly Todd Phillips' film features a bravura central performance and a style that, while dutifully imitative, engenders a claustrophobic sense of dread. But it's all in service of precisely nothing.


'Joker' Is Wild ... ly Dull

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Hollywood has been churning out superhero origin stories for decades, but a new film flips the genre on its head, telling the origin story of a supervillain. "Joker" stars Joaquin Phoenix as the man who would become Batman's greatest foe. It's a controversial movie for the way it seems to embrace the villain's violent ways. NPR critic Glen Weldon is something of a Batman expert. He wrote a cultural history of him a few years back, and he has this review.

GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: In the comics and cartoons and on film as played by Jack Nicholson...


JACK NICHOLSON: (As Joker, laughing).

WELDON: ...And Heath Ledger...


HEATH LEDGER: (As Joker, laughing).

WELDON: The Joker is an agent of chaos - a gleefully violent sadist whose motivations remain mysterious, unknowable. Director Todd Phillips' new film seeks to strip away all mystery from the character and make his motivations very knowable. And in that much, at least, he succeeds. Meet Arthur Fleck.


JOAQUIN PHOENIX: (As Arthur Fleck/Joker) My mother always tells me to smile and put on a happy face. She told me I had a purpose - to bring laughter and joy to the world.

PHOENIX: He's a down-on-his-luck clown for hire, only he's having a little trouble getting hired. Arthur has a condition that causes him to burst into laughter at random intervals.


PHOENIX: (As Arthur Fleck/Joker, laughing).

WELDON: It tends to creep people out.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Is something funny?


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Stay down, freak.

WELDON: Arthur gets beat up a lot in this movie - once by a bunch of Wall Street bros on the subway, who taunt him by singing "Send In The Clowns." It's really the only time in this otherwise grounded film that we're asked to suspend our disbelief at all because seriously, we're supposed to believe that a straight finance bro would be off-book on the second and third verses of a Sondheim number? Come on. At least Arthur has a social worker to talk to. Except...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I have some bad news for you.

PHOENIX: (As Arthur Fleck/Joker, laughing).

WELDON: The city's cut the funding.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) This is the last time we'll be meeting.

WELDON: He doesn't take it well.


PHOENIX: (As Arthur Fleck/Joker) You don't listen, do you? You just ask the same questions every week. How's your job? Are you having any negative thoughts? All I have are negative thoughts.

WELDON: You see what director Phillips and his co-screenwriter Scott Silver are up to. You couldn't miss it if you tried. They want us to see Arthur as a victim pushed into becoming a monster by his mental illness and by a broken government. Now, some might find that irresponsible. What it certainly is is uninteresting. Sure, "Joker" is tense, grimy and claustrophobic. And Phoenix's performance is already getting Oscar buzz.


PHOENIX: (As Arthur Fleck/Joker) People are starting to notice.

WELDON: But the film so desperately strives to reject comic-book trappings, so wants to be seen as edgy, provocative, adult that it simply apes the tone, style and content of other, better, more edgy, more provocative films like "Taxi Driver" and "The King Of Comedy" and "Fight Club." But those films had a point of view. They had something to say. They implicated us in their onscreen violence and the bad choices the characters made. "Joker" sees Arthur's transformation into a mass murderer as inevitable. It's not a choice. It's something the world does to him.


PHOENIX: (As Arthur Fleck/Joker) Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?

WELDON: It devotes so much energy to not being about a comic book villain that it neglects being about much of anything, really.

I'm Glen Weldon.


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