Joker’s Oscar Nominations Are a Joke

Stop the madness. This movie is dumb as hell.

Joaquin Phoenix, in profile, in a red suit and clown makeup.
Joaquin Phoenix in Joker. Warner Bros.

Look, it was fine when people liked Joker. It made a billion dollars, that’s understandable. It’s a comic book movie with style. It won the Golden Lion at Venice? I mean, Hirokazu Kore-eda was not thrilled, I’m sure, but it’s great that a film festival thought outside the box. Joaquin Phoenix got a bunch of Best Actor attention in critics’ polls and lesser awards? No problem! It’s a showy performance. The guy lost so much weight—throw him a bone.

As awards season went on, though, it became more and more clear that the film might be a real player. Not just for Best Actor—fine, there’s a long and proud tradition of nominations for overcooked performances in bad movies—but for real awards. Actual serious awards-giving bodies kept nominating the thing: The BAFTAs? The Producers Guild?! My own damn union?!!

Today—as Joker receives 11 Oscar nominations, the most of any movie, including Best Picture and Best Director—is the day that someone must stand astride the tracks and say: Enough. Stop the madness. Joker is not the best picture of the year. Joker is dumb as hell.

It’s OK that Todd Phillips wanted to make a Batman movie that looked like Taxi Driver! That’s a fun thing to do in the context of a comic book story. The result was exactly as entertaining and dumb as you might expect. What the result was not was one of the 11, or 21, or 51 best pictures of the year. To reward it as such is, well, not smart.

From its dumb yellow title card to its antihero’s dumb delusions of grandeur to its dumb absolute belief in its own transgressiveness, Joker is just as stupid as can be. It is a movie designed to seem impressive to anyone without much of an understanding of film history, who’s maybe seen clips from Taxi Driver online. It’s a movie designed for people who must rush to get on Twitter to see if everyone catches the reference.

Joker is a movie for people who think that blood spatter and dwarf jokes are daring and provocative, when in fact they are extremely tired. Joker is a movie for people who think that movies about class riots demonstrate actual class consciousness by a Hollywood studio, when in fact the movie is porn for viewers who get off on squalor. Joker is a movie for people who think that starving yourself, being a pain to your co-workers, and allegedly kicking a dumpster so hard you dislocate your knee are evidence of good acting. In fact, they are not.

Let’s take a moment to note the music cues in Joker. “White Room”? Dumb. “Rock and Roll Part 2”? No more aggressively inane song has ever been recorded. “Smile,” as in “though your heart is aching”? Come on. “Send in the Clowns”? In case you didn’t catch the reference—

The film’s many fake outs? Dumb, dumb, dumb. Are viewers seriously meant to believe that Arthur’s cute and funny neighbor, played by Zazie Beetz, actually enjoys his stand-up routine and welcomes him into her life? We’d have to be idiots to think so. Or are we meant to believe that the filmmakers intended, all along, for us to know we’re watching Arthur’s delusions? Well, that would be even dumber, considering how big the movie plays its dramatic Tyler Durden–esque reveal that actually she was never there. Either way, it was annoying way back when A Beautiful Mind won Best Picture for recycling this trick. Eighteen years later, if your movie shares its big twist with Last Christmas, it is neither smart nor Best Picture material.

Joker is 122 minutes long, yet somehow contains 183 minutes of Joaquin Phoenix laughing uncontrollably.

Joker poses as a movie interested in exploring the anomie and alienation of contemporary manhood, the rage of the underclass, the fragile equilibrium of our cities. Joker is not actually interested in any of those things. It is interested in shocks and thrills, in valorizing its antihero’s put-upon haplessness, in exploiting potent and crucial protest messages for the lulz.

Above all, Joker is committed to grittiness. It is so gritty. Its Latino youths tormenting poor Arthur Fleck? Gritty. Its bums gathered around fires? Gritty. Its culminating riot, with citizens in clown masks smashing car windows and shooting Bruce Wayne’s parents? So gritty you can taste the grit, in your mouth, getting in between your teeth.

This, in the end, is what I find stupidest of all about Joker: how convinced the movie seems that it’s daring, that it’s showing us something we’ve never seen before. There’s a scene in Joker when Arthur Fleck sneaks into a fancy benefit screening of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. Todd Phillips trains the camera on the movie screen as the Little Tramp roller-skates closer and closer to a steep drop. Get it?! Phillips is asking, nudging us in the ribs. We, too, are unafraid to skate close to the edge.

In fact, Joker is merely the fourth-best movie to feature this extremely popular cartoon villain. It is a comic book movie whose star thinks he is too good for comic book movies. It is a Scorsese homage that the actual Martin Scorsese thinks is “fine.” It is a profoundly, gloriously dumb movie that somehow has made its way into serious consideration as the best of the year.

But it ends here, folks. Academy members, heed my plea: If you want to reward a movie about the rage of the underclass, vote for Parasite. If you want to reward a movie that boldly mixes the dark and the light, vote for Jojo Rabbit. If you want to reward a movie for being indebted to the work of Martin Scorsese, vote for The Irishman! But do not vote for Joker. It is not magnificent, sublime, monumental, or extraordinary. It is dumb.