Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck in ‘Joker.’

Writer-director Todd Phillips wants to be Martin Scorsese.

His previous film, “War Dogs,” was a failed attempt to capture Scorsese’s “Wolf of Wall Street”-like, bad guy biopic. “Joker” is a marginally better, slapdash cover song of “Taxi Driver” or “The King of Comedy.”

He uses Scorsese’s golden-era setting (a 1970s New York City-esque Gotham, covered in garbage and graffiti), the precise camerawork and his go-to character (an obsessive, unwell loner). But he’s missing the nuance and intricacies that make Scorsese’s character work so interesting and thoughtful.

The Rupert Pupkin or Travis Bickle in “Joker” is Arthur Fleck, a heavily medicated, mentally ill individual who struggles with his mere existence, or lack thereof, in society. He works as a clown, whether it’s spinning signs on the street or entertaining children in the hospital, while taking care of Penny (Frances Conroy), his ailing mother, in their slowly crumbling apartment.

Nothing in Fleck’s life goes right. Everyone, from pesky teens to a mayoral candidate, seemingly want to beat him to a pulp. In the case of three Brooks Brothers-clad Wayne Enterprise employees, they do and end up getting shot in the head by Fleck, unleashing an inner darkness that gives him a new lease on life.

From there, the movie branches off in several different directions: the murder of the three men prompts a “Rich Vs. Working Class” subplot that brews in the background of “Joker’s” TV and radio broadcasts. With the suspect identified only as a man in clown makeup, Fleck becomes their Guy Fawkes-like avatar. Meanwhile, Penny’s obsession with the affluent Thomas Wayne, whom she believes can save them from their depressing situation, and her nightly viewings of the Johnny Carson-esque talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) make both targets for Fleck’s ire.

Phillips doesn’t know how to juggle all of these plotlines, so it comes out a mishmash of violence and threads that don’t pay off. It’s all a journey of intense, bitter violence and anger with no justifiable reason to exist.

This isn’t to say there are no bright spots. Joaquin Phoenix is the obvious one. Despite the screenplay’s lack of humanity, he brings such palpable sadness and anger that it gives Fleck’s character a sense of gravity the rest of the movie lacks. Filling in the Jerry Lewis talk show host role from “The King of Comedy,” De Niro is a wonderful presence as the smarmy TV jokester, looking like a mixture of Lewis and Tony Bennett. Despite being underutilized, “Deadpool 2’s” Zazie Beetz is the one beacon of charm in this.

Phoenix has stated “Joker” will be the only installment with this character, which is a bit of a shame because he’s so good and also wasted in this murky sludge.

In the “Batman” comics, The Joker has famously been a nebulous agent of chaos who seemingly materialized from the toxic atmosphere of Gotham’s crime-ridden underbelly. “Joker” makes the case that maybe it should stay that way with no background story needed.

— Andrew Gaug | St. Joe Live

Andrew Gaug can be reached at andrew.gaug@newspressnow.com.

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