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The joke’s on us: Joker dominates this year’s Oscar nominations

The Oscar nominations are in and Joker is again having the last laugh.

The despairingly dark take on Batman’s most famous foe defied initial expectations by first winning the Golden Lion at the Cannes Film Festival, and then becoming the most successful R-rated film of all-time, ultimately eclipsing the $1 billion mark at the box office.

Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker

Now it leads all films in Oscar nominations heading into next month’s ceremony with 11 nods. Will it win the esteemed Best Picture honor? Almost certainly not. The less obvious question is did it deserve a nomination in that category at all? I’d argue that it didn’t.

(Note: Spoilers about the film follow, so proceed with caution.)

Uneasiness unearned

Full disclosure: When I first saw the trailer for Joker, I muttered “hard pass” to myself. Even in a 2-minute snippet, the film’s disturbing vibe flooded through loud and clear. No way was I going to subject myself to that level of discomfort for a film built around a comic-book villain.

I remained steadfast in my resistance throughout Joker‘s theatrical run, but saw my resolve falter when one of my colleagues here at Digital Trends offered me an advance copy of the Blu-ray a couple weeks ago. That, combined with my stepson’s insistence that I “need to watch it,” set me on the path toward two of the most uncomfortable hours I’ve ever spent watching a movie — and I recently rewatched Schindler’s List.

Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker
Warner Brothers

And I don’t mention Schindler’s List by accident. Like Joker, it is a tough watch, albeit much more emotionally powerful. But it’s also a masterfully crafted look at one of the darkest chapters of human history directed by perhaps the most skilled director of his generation. All this combines to make the emotional uneasiness more earned.

He’s no Scorsese

It’s no great slight to say that Todd Phillips, who directed Joker, is no Steven Spielberg. And he’s no Martin Scorsese either — which brings us to our next point. Some of the most pervasive criticism of Joker is that it’s a pale imitation — if not a flat-out ripoff —  of Scorsese’s films, most notably Taxi Driver. And that’s tough to dispute.

Phillips, who was previously best-known for sophomoric comedies like Old School and The Hangover trilogy, definitely looked to redefine himself by co-writing and directing Joker, but it ultimately feels like a monument built on Scorsese’s back — and a none-too-sturdy one at that.

Both films conclude similarly, with their psychologically unhinged main characters committing the violent and murderous acts that the respective scripts had been building up to all along. While both men end up ironically revered for their actions, the newer film is unable to duplicate the genius of Scorsese’s work simply by deciding to put a comic-book baddie at its core.

The master stroke of Taxi Driver is that Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle ends up a local hero who continues to move through society unabated and still poses a very real risk to others. Joker, on the other hand, becomes a rallying point for fellow anarchists, and is, fittingly, committed to a psychiatric hospital — a less than secure one gauging by the film’s last scene.

Critics unimpressed

While Joaquin Phoenix delivers a locked-in performance that captivates on both physical and emotional levels, the film doesn’t measure up, which is evident in critical reactions to it. On film review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, Joker significantly lags behind the other five films I consider to be legitimate contenders for the Best Picture Oscar. At 69%, it trails the next-lowest-performing contender, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (my favorite film of the year, by the way), by 16%. Parasite leads the pack with an astounding 99% rating (quite the feat for a foreign film), followed closely by Scorsese’s The Irishman (96%) and Marriage Story (95%).

Fans, however, gave Joker an 88% rating — and a whole lot of their money — and that may be the key to its Best Picture conquest, because what are Oscar voters, at heart, but fellow fans? While, it may not have earned it in my opinion, Joker could very well laugh its way to Best Picture gold on Oscar night.

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