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Oscar Watch: ‘Joker’ is not a great movie

When I first saw ‘Joker’, I was blown away.

Revisiting movies can be a risky proposition. When first leaving the theater, feelings tend to be exaggerated. Bad films fall into the realm of terrible. Initially, they may even seem like a contender for worst movie of the year. The same goes for good movies. A movie you liked a lot, can turn into one that is a source of constant praise and recommendations. 

On repeated viewings, these first impressions tend to soften. The first time I saw Anchorman, I was unimpressed. It got funnier with every viewing after. Like everyone else, I quoted it for years. On the flip side, I thought Primer was the best time travel movie ever when I first saw it. Subsequent viewings have shown it to be pretentious and kind of boring.

When I first saw Joker, I was blown away. While it never was going to be a traditional superhero movie, it was so far removed from the genre, it almost seemed incorrect to label it as one. The story was darker than anything Christopher Nolan had done in his Dark Knight trilogy. Meanwhile, it also dealt with themes that never came up in stories about costumed avengers. 

What really set the movie apart was amazing performances – more specifically Joaquin Phoenix’s incredible turn as the titular character. There was never any doubt, Phoenix would do the Joker justice; it was just a matter how good he would do. It was impossible to discuss the best of 2019 without even mentioning Phoenix.

Joker left a strong impression on me. After leaving the theater, I thought I had seen one of the best movies of the year. It lived up to all the hype and was even a candidate for best comic book adaptation. The performance was so amazing and the story was unlike anything I had ever seen. I could not say enough good things about the movie and told everyone they had to see it.

As time has passed, my thoughts on the movie have changed. At first, it was so subtle I did not even notice. All I would talk about is Phoenix’s unbelievable performance. I think I mentioned the final scene once, but otherwise, there was nothing to say about the actual movie. Still, I thought it was one of the best films of the year.

It was not until an episode of Adventures in Movies! in which talked about the best movies of the past decade my opinion began to change. Special guest Pablo made a passing comment about Joker that got me thinking. Was it really a good movie or was it just a one of a kind performance that carried the story? Was Joker anything more than a generic comic book movie?

I knew it would take me some time to come to a conclusion. I would have to rethink the story and how much it relied on Phoenix. Each revelation, twist, and moment would have to be reexamined. I may even need to rewatch the movie again. It was then I came to my answer. I did not need to watch it again. More correctly, I did not want to watch it again.

In retrospect, Joker is not that great of a movie.

The plot is paper thin. A lonely man lives a rough life. Everything bad that can happen to him does in the worst possible ways. In order to escape his awful life, the man slips into a fantasy world that even then only makes life bearable. There is no true rising action. It is just a series of increasingly s----y things happening to one person.

At the time of its release, many – myself included – applauded the way Joker handled mental illness. Thinking back on it, I cannot think of how the issue was ever addressed. Based on what happens, the audience can deduce that Arthur has anger and coping issues. But when does the movie ever actually examine them? Again, it is simply a case of bad things being piled on to someone resulting in a violent outburst. Unless I am forgetting it, there seems to be nothing else to the film.

Joker may be the best example of an actor carrying a movie. While it is not bad, it is very formulaic. An argument can even be made that it is poorly written. If someone were to diagram the plot on a chart, it would be a straight line until the closing moments. However, an extraordinary performance from Joaquin Phoenix will lead many to believe it is a great movie. It is a feat worthy of the iconic villain.


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