‘Joker’ isn’t Oscar-worthy, but it says the most about America in 2020

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‘Joker’ doesn’t deserve best picture Oscar, but it’s a sympton of what ails 2020 America

Julie Hinds Detroit Free Press
Published 11:14 AM EST Jan 26, 2020

This year’s Oscar nominations missed the mark in many ways. They completely shut out women directors. They ignored a wide range of worthy performances by men and women of color.

And, in a puzzler right up there with “Shakespeare in Love” beating “Saving Private Ryan” for best picture in 1999, they showered the most nominations on “Joker.”

For those who haven’t seen this grim character study starring Joaquin Phoenix, “Joker” is as polarizing as contemporary American politics. According to the months-long debate that has raged since early festival screenings, it’s either a brilliant twist on the DC Comics character’s origin story or a hollow revenge saga with pretensions of greatness.

I side with the latter view, which puts me in opposition to “Joker” believers like Variety’s Owen Gleiberman, who recently wrote in an Oscar-themed column that a “Joker” best picture victory would “play as a rebuke to the moralistic finger-wagging of the Twitter bubble.” A tip of the hat and wag of the finger to Gleiberman for reducing those of us who disagree with him to snowflakes.

Actor: Joaquin Phoenix, “Joker”
Niko Tavernise, Warner Bros. Entertainment

Yet while “Joker” raked in a whopping 11 nominations, it is unlikely to take home Oscar’s top honor February 9 during the ceremony that airs on ABC. 

The favorites of the moment are the technically dazzling “1917” and the quirky, nostalgic “Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood.” And buzz is growing that the most provocative nominee, director Bong Joon Ho’s class-warfare parable, “Parasite,” could score a surprise win, thus redeeming the #OscarsSoMale/White/OutofTouch vibe of this year.

Then again, conventional wisdom said in 2016 that Donald Trump would not be elected president. That is relevant because “Joker” is the movie that best captures the Trump political era in its refusal to seek middle ground.

More: The Oscars will have no host again for 2020 ceremony

More: 15 films that didn’t deserve the best picture Oscar – and the ones that should have won instead

The screenplay for “Joker” covers a snack pack of negative emotions that drive people apart: resentment, anger, self-pity and mockery. Like many aging, out-of-touch government figures, the story line thrives on the intellectual dishonesty of wanting to have it both ways.

The title character, a famous villain of the Batman universe, is presented here as a modern fantasy of victimhood. The misery of his life isn’t scrutinized to help explain his psyche or his actions. His suffering is pitched as an excuse for his behavior, which is pretty inexcusable, starting with — spoiler alert! — his gunning down of three obnoxious Wall Street types after they beat him up in a subway car.

Film ensemble: “Joker”
Niko Tavernise, Warner Bros. Pictures

It’s not surprising that the Academy Awards voting pool — still dominated by older white men despite efforts to increase representation and inclusion — was drawn to a story of a downtrodden white dude with multiple grievances. In a way, “Joker” was born of a gripe. Director and co-screenwriter Todd Phillips (himself a nominee), told Vanity Fair that he turned to drama because “woke culture” had made it impossible for him to keep doing comedies like his prior hits “Old School” and “The Hangover.” 

Such disgruntlement with, well, everything is reflected throughout the film. In “Joker,” rich people are horrible, social workers are useless, family ties equal pain, and empathy is non-existent. But what does this chaotic, visually dazzling exploration of one man’s bleak journey have to say about the human experience? In the end, not much. Its thesis statement boils down to the question posed by punching bag-turned-psycho killer Arthur Fleck, aka Joker: “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?”

Arthur is a street clown who only wants to bring joy to others. But he’s harassed by a groups of kids at his human-billboard job and judged unfairly by strangers for his uncontrolled laughter, which stems from a real-life condition that causes involuntary emotional reactions.

In 2020 terms, Fleck is trolled by everyone.

Mired in poverty, Arthur can’t rely on a medical safety net. Budget cuts are about to take away the treatment program that provides medication for his unnamed mental illness — a situation all too realistic for anyone with bad or no insurance.

If only Arthur’s declining mental health were treated as accurately. “Joker” has stirred controversy in the psychiatric community for the implied link between serious mental illness and violence. Although that stigma is perpetrated often by Hollywood, it isn’t backed up by actual statistics.

8. “Joker”: The R-rated villain origin story starring Joaquin Phoenix was more of a thriller than a popcorn movie but still made superhero money: $333.5 million.
Niko Tavernise, AP

“Joker” is dotted with familiar Batman references to Wayne Manor and Arkham Asylum (and there’s even a glimpse of young Bruce Wayne), but it doesn’t want to be another comic book movie. Instead, it strives to be a “Taxi Driver” for 2020. From the production design to the portrait of a loner driven to brutality, it is an homage to Martin Scorsese’s 1970s grittiness that doubles as an indictment of today’s uncaring, downright bullying society.

This could have been rich territory for an exploration of Fleck as an updated Travis Bickle, the disaffected, imbalanced cabbie of Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece. But the script by Phillips and Scott Silver veers in another direction, toward 1974’s “Death Wish,” which divvied up the world into dirt-bags, targets of mayhem, and, in Charles Bronson’s character, avenging angels.

Yeah, the ’70s had a deeply intolerant, downright scary side, much like today.

Fifty years ago, gritty dramas offered complex portraits of social alienation. The best of them — “Taxi Driver,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” Apocalypse Now,” “Five Easy Pieces” — speak as strongly now as they did back then. “Joker,” in contrast, takes what it admires about that genre and distills it to a grimy vision of miserable martyrdom. It gets the settings right, but it misses the complicated layers of meaning.

The one true thing about “Joker” is Joaquin Phoenix’s commitment to playing Arthur. He’s so good at accessing raw feelings that he can be difficult to watch. The performance has made Phoenix a virtual sure thing for the best actor Oscar. But his character’s journey amounts to a collection of gif-worthy moments for the age of online distraction.

Watch Arthur knock a time clock off the wall of his workplace and say, “Oh no, I forgot to punch out!” See Arthur’s inner demons surface as he dances in his underwear in the bathroom. Gawk as Arthur is surrounded by a crowd of men dressed as clowns, inspired by his example ready to tear the city apart with violence.

The cinematography is quite arresting. There are shots that film students will talk about for years, and if “Joker” wins something for its look, so be it. Yet, ultimately, it’s a style exercise that doesn’t ask anything of the audience. Like the algorithms that drive media content in our click-bait society, “Joker” floods you with cool scenes it knows you’ll like, not tough ethical dilemmas you’d prefer to ignore. 

Joaquin Phoenix dances down a stairway in New York’s Bronx borough in a scene from “Joker.” The set of outdoor steps not far from Yankee Stadium has become a tourist attraction.
Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP

Over time, “Joker” may be remembered most for the sequence where Phoenix dances down those steep stairs in the Bronx to the tune of “Rock ‘N’ Roll (Part 2).”

The combination of actor, wardrobe, throbbing musical hook and freestyle choreography results in a 30-second clip that’s perfect for texting to a friend, when the latest breaking news drops that makes no sense whatsoever.

If there were an Oscar for best meme, “Joker” should win in a landslide.

Contact Detroit Free Press pop culture critic Julie Hinds: 313-222-6427 or jhinds@freepress.com.

92nd Academy Awards ceremony

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