Guys (and, since this is the Academy we’re talking about, I really do mean “guys”), we need to talk. Are we sure that Joaquin Phoenix is good in Joker?
Two things up front, both of which we can hold in our heads at the same time: First, Phoenix is one of the best actors of his generation (and also probably an alien). Second, Joker is a mediocre movie at best and morally irresponsible at worst.
But putting all that aside, are we certain that America’s foremost anti-cow-insemination scoundrel was a great actor, much less the ~best~ actor, in Todd Phillips’ gritty Taxi Driver reboot?
Acting weird doesn’t make you a great actor. If we’re going to give Oscars to off-the-rails performances of characters with a destructive persecution complex, then Adam Sandler would have had himself a night on Sunday. And Phoenix himself has played memorably weird characters in the past but, unlike Joker, all of them had an unmistakable depth and generated unique insight into what it means to be human. I still can’t tell you what half of The Master was about, but I know there was something true about Phoenix’s Freddie Quell. The same goes for his roles in Her, in Walk the Line, hell even in Gladiator.
But all those roles had what Phoenix’s Joker didn’t—they were interesting. You trusted that Phoenix didn’t just have a reason why his character was behaving like he was, but that it was a good reason. Even not having a reason at all can be enough, but that wasn’t what we got here.
Instead, Phoenix’s Joker was a hollow pastiche of victimhood and trauma. Few actors have pushed the envelope quite like him, and he was rewarded for it on Sunday. It’s just a shame that it wasn’t for his best performance.