When the trailer for Joker dropped earlier this year, everyone was understandably excited. There was the great Joaquin Phoenix in the lead, there were stylized shots that looked like a gritty, realistic version of the villain from the Batman comics, and there was the Sinatra-themed soundtrack. Unfortunately, while the film delivered on all these elements, the overall story simply isn’t as convincing as one hoped it would be.

To be sure, the visual image of the film is impressive, especially Joker’s costume and make-up, which reflects his character development, his journey of self-discovery. The seedy streets of Gotham, with trash bags piling up in every dark side alley and class tensions rising, also seem like a fitting breeding ground for Joker’s peculiar brand of anarchism and mayhem.

Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker.
Copyright: © 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. TM & © DC Comics Picture: Niko Tavernise

In this squalor, we meet Arthur Fleck, a poor clown with mental health problems who takes care of his mother and dreams of becoming a standup comedian, but he’s constantly beaten down by the surrounding environment, which is in turns violent and disinterested.

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Joaquin Phoenix does a wonderful job in his portrayal of the frail and tormented man who will become one of the most interesting villains ever. His twisted posture, the choking involuntary laughter, the brooding, defeated facial features, as well as the dancing of his clown persona, bring the character to life in a very physical way.

Copyright: © 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. TM & © DC Comics Picture: Niko Tavernise

Add to this some other notable casting choices, including Robert de Niro in the role of Arthur’s idol, talk show host Murray Franklin, or Marc Maron in a cameo as Franklin’s producer. The best casting choice, though, was to cast the very funny stand-up comedian Gary Gulman in the role of “random comedian at the club” who does a set on stage while Arthur listens. However, the jokes were actually Gulman’s real-life jokes, not something written specifically for the movie, which may be great publicity for the comedian, but shows some laziness on the part of the writers.

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This brings us to the biggest problem with Joker. Director and co-writer Todd Phillips, famous for his Hangover trilogy, at timesseems out of his depth in telling this story of pain, insanity and misery beyond a handful of visually memorable shots. It is as if Phoenix’s physicality does all of the work of conveying emotion, and the script none of it. And as the story develops, certain plot lines just disappear into thin air, most prominently the budding romance with the girl next door, which carried so much potential but is simply abandoned towards the end.

In the end, one does not get the sense of closure, despite the film trying to convince us there is one; and while the Joker comes into his own as a character, it is not the quick-witted madman we’ve come to know and love, but a different sort of madman altogether.

‘Joker’ premieres in cinemas October 4.