Joker (Grade: B-), an operatic and fashionably nihilistic smear of comic-book mythmaking that already feels like a phenomenon a whole month before it’s even scheduled to open, is a movie that could only exist right now, at this exact moment in pop culture history. There is, for one, a certain exploitative topicality to the film, to the way it tries to hold up a mirror, cracked like the one Jack Nicholson shattered during his own tenure in the clown makeup, to a scary and rampant American dementia—that mixture of rage and disillusionment that’s scrawled across so much headline horror in 2019. (That may be part of the reason Lucrecia Martel and her fellow Venice jurors rather shockingly handed it the Golden Lion a few days ago.) But to say that this is a wholly contemporary blockbuster is also to acknowledge that there’s almost no way it would have secured a green-light any time before right now. More so even than Logan or Deadpool, it’s an unlikely outgrowth of our current age of superhero saturation: an R-rated, character-driven origin story without CGI or action scenes, built entirely around madness and despair.

In caped-crusader terms, Joker plays like an Elseworlds one-off, inserting maybe the most famous antagonist in all of comics into a throwback New Hollywood-biting psychodrama. For all its grimy flavor, the Gotham the movie presents is every bit as imaginary as Tim Burton’s; whereas the 1989 Batman city-planned from a blueprint of German silent classics, the latest version of the grand, imaginary place is a distorted reflection of 1970s New York as seen on screen during that era. Within this movie-buff flashback metropolis, Arthur (Joaquin Phoenix) loses his already loose grip on reality and sanity. Arthur, who looks after his ailing mother in a run-down rat-nest apartment—just as Phoenix’s character in You Were Never Really Here did—makes ends meet as a rent-a-clown, but really wants to be a stand-up comedian. Unfortunately, he’s blatantly unwell, and responds to any emotional distress the same way: with hysterical, uncontrollable laughing, his “condition.”

Early on, director Todd Phillips films Phoenix from behind as he saunters his way down a bustling street, and we see in the actor’s gait the unmistakable phantom of Travis Bickle, that seething rat in the big-city cage. If the Scorsese connection weren’t clear enough, there’s also Robert De Niro, essentially cast in the Jerry Lewis role he played against in The King Of Comedy—which is to say, as a talk-show host emulated from afar, and eventually up close, by an obsessive aspiring comic. Joker pantomimes ’70s grit, wearing it like an extravagant vintage suit. It’s a well-tailored suit—the film looks great, cinematographer Lawrence Sher supplying one powerhouse image after another, and it pushes forward with a seductive energy, pulling us from one scene to the next as forcefully as Arthur is swallowed by the chaos of the city. But Phillips, the one-time frat-comedy specialist who aped Marty’s style less confidently in War Dogs, does a dorm-room approximation of his classics, swiping their alienation without quite keying into their humor or occasional warmth.

Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

Phoenix, naturally, is riveting. As always, he commits inside and out to the role, the psychology of his character—sad and damaged and inevitably frightening, in this case—written across every movement, conveyed through the thrust of a frame as bony as Freddie Quell’s. Joker may be the first ripped-from-the-comics spectacle that’s also, essentially, a one-man show: The only special effects are Phoenix’s malleable body and expressive face. He threads an uncanny needle, bringing a detail-oriented naturalism to the part—his Joker is wholly different from any past incarnation, maybe the first to make the villain’s theatricality feel accidental, like the kind you might encounter very late on the subway—while still coming across as vivid and oversized enough to strike a pose in a splash panel. He’s in every scene, and the movie’s plot is chiefly observational, trailing Phoenix’s bad-guy-to-be from one place to another.

And yet the conception of the character doesn’t run much deeper than the makeup Arthur slathers across his face. Maybe I’ve just got Stephen King on the brain lately, but I couldn’t help but think of the author’s complaint about the Stanley Kubrick adaptation of his The Shining, which is that Jack—as played by previous clown prince of crime Jack Nicholson—seemed like a raving lunatic even before he set foot in The Overlook. Joker aims to show us how a damaged man, ignored by the world and denied the help he needs, can become a truly dangerous one—and worse, maybe a symbol for those like him. (Call this another Manson story, in spirit if not direct inspiration.) But it compounds the standard problem of prequel cinema, that predictable voyage to foregone conclusion, by making Arthur look lost from the very moment we meet him. The tragedy of his descent doesn’t entirely come across, because we never feel even the faintest flicker of possibility that he could go a different way, that anything but a spot in the Gotham rogues’ gallery awaits him.

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Will the film resonate with the “wrong” crowd? Very likely. But Taxi Driver has been doing that for decades, and this bastard offspring deserves to be judged outside of the culture war that’s sprung up around it, even if that conversation has only fueled the fires of anticipation, making it a must-see event in Toronto and beyond. Joker, in the end, is stylish and reasonably involving and a bit one-note; once you acclimate to its claustrophobic portraiture, it becomes clear that Phillips has little in store for us but one miniature Phoenix freak-out after another. Still, I can’t quite bring myself to entirely dismiss a multiplex entertainment, hurdling toward thousands of screens, that’s this interested in performance and disinterested in hitting the usual blockbuster marks. Joker may cop its values, aesthetic and philosophical, from other films, but at least it has values. And its thrills, such as they are, may be secondhand—a faint echo of a bygone Hollywood—but not since Nolan has someone made a take on this particular world that feels so comfortable in its insulation. In the cape-and-cowl-dominated film culture of our now, aiming to do something different with the genre counts for something, even if your aim is off.