The Best Picture Nominees: Joker

| February 3, 2020
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The 92nd Academy Awards are just days away, so this week I am taking a look at each of the nominees individually. Are they worth it? Let’s take a look.

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Joker is catnip for the average film critic. It is one of those deep and difficult films that is easier to write about and analyze then it is to actually watch. That said, it’s not a fun experience. It wallows in buckets of misery and pain, which leaves questions about how it became a world-wide hit.

In the years to come, film historians will work themselves into a frenzy trying to figure out what made Joker a hit.  What was it?  What caught on with audiences?  How did the single most miserable movie-going experience of 2019 make so much money at the box office?

To ask that question will require a thorough examination of the success of the superhero genre itself.  It is possible that Joker was simply the movie that Disney could never make, and at the same time the kind of adult-oriented comic book movie that Warner Bros. tried and failed to deliver over and over under the label of the DCU.  The key element is Todd Phillips whose approach to this character has to be admired.  He doesn’t reach for fan service or even box office, he wants to create a portrait of a dangerous man let loose in the world when he should be in an institution being given medication and serious therapy.

What I admire is that Phillips did not take the easy route.  He could have just made a flouncy crime movie with a human joke box at its center, but instead he went for something deeper.  In that, he has made a difficult and challenging portrait of a serious mental illness that is left unchecked.  Arthur Fleck is dangerous to himself and those around him.  He is a victim of his own mental instability but at the same time the victim of an uncaring, budget-minded system that only ever allowed him a vague, half-assed definition of therapy in the first place.

For me, the best thing about Joker is that it challenges you to decide what you think about it.  It wallows in human tragedy, in the pangs of untreated mental illness and the disorganized social order that gives a violent sociopath a license to create an unholy wall of destruction that it will be left to psychologists, psycho-analyst, historians and true crime addicts to figure out.

Joker is by no means a perfect movie.  It wallows in misery for far too long and the much-debated third act is so wildly off the rails that the reality of what preceded it is thrown out the window.  Yet, the closing moment of the film, I feel, recovers this.  Its an ending that finds Arthur finally at peace with himself, and affords him his only genuine laugh.  For what he has done, he doesn’t have to suffer.  He has created mass chaos and so now he can simply sit back, smile and watch the world burn.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
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