Joaquin Phoenix stars as the Joker in an intense, dark performance. One could expect no less from Phoenix, but it will remain in the shadow of Heath Ledger's in The Dark Knight. The character here is somewhere between Norman Bates and Travis Bickle, a put upon misfit named Arthur Fleck living in a decaying Gotham City. He shares a place with his needy mother and tries to make a living as a clown and stand up comedian. His only joy comes from watching a popular late night talk show with Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Arthur also struggles with mental health issues, struggling with a condition that causes bouts of uncontrollable laughter.
One night on the subway Arthur lashes out with violence after a group of Wall Street traders harass him. The turn to violence creates a change within Arthur and he begins to feel empowered. Meanwhile, like Taxi Driver, there's a political campaign in Gotham with Thomas Wayne running, a Trump like businessman who demonizes the poor. Arthur and Thomas are on a collision course that plays out in a slightly clever way.
There are some memorable scenes in Joker, mostly due to Phoenix's bravura performance. He'll often break into bizarre dance routines and oddly grows more charismatic as the story moves along. But when Joker tries to make a larger social statement it misses completely. The class war theme was explored in The Dark Knight Rises, but here it's even more simplistic. In a comic book story such an approach works, but it comes of as shallow in a movie trying to be more than that. The anti-climatic ending leaves us with an interesting performance trapped in a derivative landscape.
The controversies surrounding the release of Joker were a brilliant marketing gambit presenting the film as something dangerous. But the film offers minimal insight on humanity and the nature of evil, but instead revels in its own routine descent into darkness.