It’s entirely reasonable to be upset at this development. “Joker” is, after all, a very dumb movie, even if it’s a moderately competent one. But one shouldn’t be surprised: “Joker” and the Academy group together like comic book hobos warming their hands around an oil can fire. It is precisely the kind of movie that the Oscars exist to celebrate, a middlebrow film that encourages its middlebrow viewers to think of themselves as thoughtful consumers of elevated entertainment.
Todd Philips’s take on the DC Comics villain seems to begin and end at the pitch: “Let’s do an edgy Joker movie.” Just imagine your undergrad stoner, quasi-anarchist acquaintance chanting “We live in a society” nonstop for two hours in clown makeup and you get the picture.
But, to his credit, Philips knows how to sell a movie — even one that sometimes seems like a protracted origin story for the “Damaged” tattoo that Jared Leto wore in his own turn as the Joker: Portentous as it is pretentious, “Joker” has nothing to say; seemingly beginning and ending with the idea that edginess is an end in itself. Look past the spectacle, and you’ll get little more than a nonsensical diatribe about … something? Maybe society, maybe the 1 percent, maybe how the mentally ill are marginalized in our culture, maybe incivility, maybe how the media is corrupt, maybe reactionary politics. I truly do not know. It’s brazenly, profoundly stupid in its imprecision and random, rootless provocations.
But, if none of the film’s ideas are actually intelligible, the cinematic language with which it tries to articulate them is entirely legible, in the easiest of ways. Philips understands the kind of images that middlebrow audiences respond to — the kind that register as cinema to people who’ve probably never studied the medium but nevertheless feel qualified to comment on its history.
“Joker” wants to flatter its audience while it provokes, to stroke its viewer’s ego by letting them recognize the broad references to Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy.” It looks like those gritty New York movies! “Joker” is even nostalgic for them. And, so it goes, Academy members are nostalgic for them, too. “Taxi Driver,” “The King of Comedy” and Philips’s other reference points — from Charlie Chaplin to Orson Welles — were inevitably responding to their own social and political climates. In nodding to them, “Joker” is merely imitating the form of movies that speak to our times and the way we live, or something. To the Oscars, that’s all that matters.
“Jojo Rabbit” is another dumb but nicer movie about today’s politics, which joined “Joker” in earning a best picture nomination. A well-intentioned but maybe misguided film about fascism and how people from different worlds can see the humanity in others — so long as they have a crush on them — “Jojo Rabbit” also compliments its audience by kind of talking about Nazis and anti-Semitism without ever interrogating the systematic functions of genocide, and being told from a child’s perspective does not let the film off its quaint hook. That it is, nevertheless, up for six awards speaks to the long history of the academy nominating movies that kind of, sort of address sensitive issues — think “Life Is Beautiful,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” “Forrest Gump” and their kin — while offering little insight. What these films have in common with “Joker” is a willingness to tell you that they are very important without doing anything particularly meaningful, or even anything especially challenging.
And they don’t have to. The Academy Awards are, rarely, if ever, a meritocracy. They are designed not to award the best filmmaking, but to burnish the film industry’s own sense of its identity. Now and then, they reward a truly remarkable film, as they did when “Moonlight” came away with best picture in 2016. But those wins, too, establish not what is good but the story that Hollywood wants to tell about its own goodness, maybe even its righteousness.
Remember, as recently as 2018, Academy membership was still 69 percent male and 82 percent white. The Oscars sometimes get criticized for being self-congratulatory, but the Academy’s choices go deeper than that: They articulate the myth of Hollywood’s relationship to taste and politics itself. It has to hit a middle: competent but never too difficult; liberal enough to be on the “right side of history” but never so radical as to upset the moneyed conservatives who will finance the films of tomorrow.
From “Driving Miss Daisy” to “Green Book,” from “Gone with the Wind” to “The Shape of Water,” the Oscars like to feel good about themselves. The films they celebrate can be provocative, but in a way that invites you to feel accomplished and perhaps even cosmopolitan for liking them; there’s a populist streak in those films because that’s how the institution’s awards are designed.
“Joker” is a dumb enough movie with politics nonspecific enough that by indicting, with skinny wide-open arms, everyone in society, the film basically indicts no one at all, so Oscar voters don’t have to feel implicated. It is here that competence and incoherence intertwine. When the Joker stands on a car — dancing, of course — and points a finger at the audience, you might think, for a moment, that he’s calling us out. Yet somehow, it’s shot just beautifully enough that any given audience member can prance away into the pale moonlight, unperturbed, when the credits roll. That self-satisfaction and smugness the audience gets to feel at the end may be the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled. Well, that or athleisure.