Why so serious? Todd Phillips’ solemn but shallow supervillain origins movie has a strong performance by Joaquin Phoenix but is weighed down by realist detail and tedious material
Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a pathetic loser and loner in Gotham City, some time in the early 1980s. Arthur is a former inpatient at a psychiatric facility but is now allowed to live with his elderly mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), in her scuzzy apartment. Poor Arthur has a neurological condition that means he is liable to break into screeching laughter at inopportune moments. He has a crush on his single-mom neighbour Sophie (Zazie Beetz) and pines to be a comedian, hero-worshipping cheesy TV host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). But he can only get a job as a clown in grinning makeup and floppy-toed shoes twirling an advertising banner outside a store, where he is bullied and beaten up by young thugs passing by. One day, after the humiliation and despair become too much to bear, Arthur gets hold of a gun and discovers that his talent is not for comedy but violence.
The film, based on DC Comics characters, stars Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker.
- Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck / Joker: …
- Robert De Niro as Murray Franklin: …
- Zazie Beetz as Sophie Dumond: …
- Frances Conroy as Penny Fleck: Arthur’s mentally and physically ill mother, who formerly worked for Thomas Wayne.
An origin story set in 1981, the film follows Arthur Fleck, a failed stand-up comedian who turns to a life of crime and chaos in Gotham City. Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Bill Camp, Shea Whigham, and Marc Maron appear in supporting roles. Joker was produced by Warner Bros. Pictures, DC Films, and Joint Effort in association with Bron Creative and Village Roadshow Pictures, and distributed by Warner Bros.
In 1981, party clown and aspiring stand-up comedian Arthur Fleck lives with his mother, Penny, in Gotham City. Gotham is rife with crime and unemployment, leaving segments of the population disenfranchised and impoverished. Arthur suffers from a disorder that causes him to laugh at inappropriate times affect, and depends on social services for medication. After a gang attacks him in an alley, Arthur’s co-worker, Randall, gives him a gun. Arthur invites his neighbour, single mother Sophie, to his stand-up comedy show, and they begin dating.
While entertaining at a children’s hospital, Arthur’s gun falls out of his pocket. Randall lies that Arthur bought the gun himself and Arthur is fired. On the subway, still in his clown makeup, Arthur is beaten by three drunken Wayne Enterprises businessmen; he shoots two in self-defence and executes the third. The murders are condemned by billionaire mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne, who labels those envious of more successful people as “clowns”. Demonstrations against Gotham’s rich begin, with protesters donning clown masks in Arthur’s image. Funding cuts shutter the social service program, leaving Arthur without medication.
Arthur’s comedy show goes poorly; he laughs uncontrollably and has difficulty delivering his jokes. Talk show host Murray Franklin mocks Arthur by showing clips from the routine on his show. Arthur intercepts a letter written by Penny to Thomas, alleging that he is Thomas’ illegitimate son, and berates his mother for hiding the truth. At Wayne Manor, Arthur talks to Thomas’ young son, Bruce, but flees after a scuffle with butler Alfred Pennyworth. Following a visit from two Gotham City Police Department detectives investigating Arthur’s involvement in the train murders, Penny suffers a stroke and is hospitalized.
At a public event, Arthur confronts Thomas, who tells him that Penny is delusional and not his biological mother. In denial, Arthur visits Arkham State Hospital and steals Penny’s case file; the file says Penny adopted Arthur as a baby and allowed her abusive boyfriend to harm them both. Penny alleged that Thomas used his influence to fabricate the adoption and commit her to the asylum to hide their affair. Distraught, Arthur goes to the hospital and kills Penny. He returns home and enters Sophie’s apartment unannounced. Frightened, Sophie tells him to leave; their previous encounters were Arthur’s delusions.
Arthur is invited to appear on Murray’s show due to the unexpected popularity of his comedy routine’s clips. As he prepares, Arthur is visited by Randall and fellow ex-colleague Gary. Arthur murders Randall but leaves Gary unharmed for treating him well in the past. En route to the studio, Arthur is pursued by the two detectives onto a train filled with clown protesters. One detective accidentally shoots a protester and incites a riot, allowing Arthur to escape.
Before the show goes live, Arthur requests that Murray introduce him as Joker, a reference to Murray’s previous mockery. Joker walks out to a warm reception, but tells morbid jokes, admits he killed the men on the train, and rants about how society abandons the disenfranchised. After calling out Murray for mocking him, Joker kills him, and is arrested as riots break out across Gotham. One rioter corners the Wayne family in an alley and murders Thomas and his wife Martha, sparing a traumatized Bruce.[a] Rioters in an ambulance crash into the police car carrying Joker and free him. He dances to the cheers of the crowd.
At Arkham, Arthur laughs to himself and tells his psychiatrist she would not understand the joke. He runs from orderlies, leaving a trail of bloodied footprints.