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‘Joker’: Wild card Joaquin Phoenix dominates and distorts a creepy movie

Did director Todd Phillips foreshadow 'Joker' in an interview with our film critic in 2006?

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from "Joker," in theaters on Oct. 4.  (Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)
This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from "Joker," in theaters on Oct. 4. (Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)Read moreNiko Tavernise / AP

In 2006, director Todd Phillips passed through Philadelphia to chat about his movie School for Scoundrels, and at some point our conversation turned to his wish list of future projects.

Phillips said he was trying to put together a documentary about Vegas comedian Carrot Top, who had become wealthy via a lucrative casino gig, but lacked the one thing he wanted most: the validation of other comedians.

I don’t think Phillips ever made that doc, although he did give Carrot Top a cameo in the credits sequence of The Hangover three years later. But I suspect elements of that project found their way into Joker, the director’s make-your-skin-crawl new addition to the DC canon.

It’s the story of a performing clown and aspiring stand-up (Joaquin Phoenix) who turns a lifetime of abuse and, ultimately, rejection by one of his comedy idols (Robert DeNiro) into homicidal rage that becomes a social contagion. Mayhem engulfs Gotham, class resentments erupt in violence, though by that time whatever inspired the story (you’re off the hook, Carrot Top) has been completely altered and subsumed by Phoenix’s seething performance in the title role.

The actor gives so much emotional and psychological weight to his character, Arthur Fleck, that he places Joker beyond most of the posted limits (Heath Ledger’s Joker is his closest rival) of comic-book movies. Good luck putting this character on screen with Aquaman.

The movie tells us this much about Fleck: He has been institutionalized. He takes seven different medications to treat an unspecified mental illness. He’s being treated by a state-appointed psychiatrist.

Phoenix makes you believe all of it, even if the clinical details are fuzzy.

Do you have negative thoughts? “All I have are negative thoughts.”

There’s a glibness to that response that suggests the movie’s genre origins, but Phoenix turns it into the pitiable and believable confession of a man with severe psychological problems (and also a neurological condition that causes inappropriate laughter), who’s thought of ending his life, and who presses on mainly to care for the invalid mother (Frances Conroy).

So we fear the worst when, not long into the story, he is cut off from medication and care, and someone at work hands him a gun.

We fear the worst, and we get it. A subway massacre turns Fleck into an icon whose clown face finds semipermanent residence on the front page of Gotham tabloids, and a vigilante folk hero (his victims are loathsome Wall Street bros who are irredeemably awful except for being weirdly fluent in Sondheim).

You can feel Phillips struggling to place this violence somewhere in a context that audiences can accept, or at least tolerate. He references, for instance, other famous movies about troubled loners. Look, he says, I’m only doing a variation on ideas already introduced in King of Comedy or Taxi Driver.

Phillips also plays up themes of inequality and one-percenter arrogance, though frankly these were handled with much more sophistication and consistency in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises.

» READ MORE: In ‘Dark Knight Rises, an embarrassment of riches

Yet having unleashed Phoenix, Phillips doesn’t seem to know how to contain or couch the performance. At some point he seems to have surrendered, and when the movie is over you realize Arthur is its only substantial character. DeNiro is a thin composite, and actors like WTF Podcast pioneer Marc Maron and Bill Camp have cameo-sized appearances. Zazie Beetz (Deadpool 2, Altanta) plays a woman whom Arthur would like to date, but the role is insubstantial by dramatic necessity and by design.

» READ MORE: 'Deadpool 2': An offbeat action comedy with legs. Gross, little baby legs

The weakest elements are narrative shout-outs to the Batman mythos, built around Bruce Wayne’s parents, which point to a sequel that might require yet more energy from Phoenix, who already looks gaunt and spent (I’d much prefer to see Phoenix in a sequel to Inherent Vice, but I’m pretty much alone in that regard).

» READ MORE: 'Inherent Vice' is a nutty homage to detective classics

The closest thing Phoenix has to a viable costar is Gotham itself, a visually detailed and interesting evocation of 1980s New York, though in the end this is nearly undone by the images of clown gangs run amok. It plays like outtakes from The Purge, and the sinister slow motion pan of a passing clown face — shown repeatedly in Joker — is such a cliché it’s been turned into parody in the Taco Bell commercials.

You can laugh at these nacho-cheesy moments, but it’s not so easy to dismiss Phoenix’s creepy turn here, pulling the viewer along as he makes the journey from victim to victimizer, a killer who stages media-ready murder spectacles meant to stand as a perverse public monument to his isolation and pain.

The kind of guy, in other words, whom we see in the paper every month, taking a rifle to concerts, malls, and movie theaters. Joker can be seen as a sincere attempt to understand such men. And they need to be understood so they can be stopped — I’m not sure they need an origin story, certainly not one that ends as repulsively as Joker.

On the whole, I think I’d rather have seen the documentary about Carrot Top.

Joker. Directed by Todd Phillips. With Joaquin Phoenix, Zazie Beetz, Robert DeNiro, Frances Conroy, Bill Camp, and Marc Maron. Distributed by Warner Bros.

Parents guide: R (violence, language)

Running time: 2 hours, 2 min.

Playing at: Area theaters