By Joanna Langfield

Todd Phillips’ take on the iconic Batman nemesis has a lot on its mind. Too bad it blasts it all so relentlessly almost none of it leaves a lasting mark.

Presented as an origins story, we see what’s behind Joker, the character we’ve met in other, some far more compelling, takes. But this is no mere meet-the-bad-guy tale. Phillips takes this admittedly huge opportunity and throws just about everything, it feels, into the mix. There are Statements (with a capital S) including but not limited to: society’s treatment of the mentally ill, society’s treatment of the not mentally ill, the state of violence, comedy, the media and even a few rich references to Antifa. And it’s presented as a nod to several earlier films, most notably Taxi Driver and King of Comedy.

Just in case you don’t get that, Robert DeNiro shows up in a few scenes which only made me wish I were watching the far more eloquent Taxi Driver or King of Comedy. And the dazzling The Irishman, a film Phillips’ couldn’t have known would also serve up, and far more profoundly, a remarkable look at much of what he squeezes in here. He also squeezes in some appearances from a few fine actors, most of whom are given barely any time on screen. Because this picture, moral ambitions aside, is really only about one thing. And that’s Joaquin Phoenix’s central performance.

Perhaps had this whole endeavor not been edited with a sledgehammer, Phoenix’s adventurous work might have shown the softness that could have drawn us into his plight. I never felt pulled in to this brutal and gruesome film, even when plot points serve up the opportunity on a platter. Instead, I sat back, watching an often fine actor deliver some interesting moments, waiting anxiously for the whole thing to be over.