Posted by mike in Film at 11:28 pm on July 17, 2008

Here’s an idea: let’s find a young, up-and-coming director with some indie cred (say, Martin McDonagh). Let’s get him to “re-imagine” a story of a mental institution, providing a touching and humanizing view of the inmates while critiquing the system that dehumanizes them. We’ll get a hot young star to personify the free-spirited inmate who inspires the others to dream of their own freedom before martyring himself to the cause. We’ll call him McMurphy, and I think that Justin Timberlake would be perfect for the role. We’ll get someone like Susan Sarandon to costar as the cold-hearted nurse who embodies the oppressive nature of the mental institution and combats the inmates’ attempts to find happiness at every turn. We’ll call it The Nest, and market it as a darkly modern coming-of-age story. It’ll be a sure-fire critical and box office success.

The Nest poster

Or, here’s another one: this time we’ll use a well-established, well-respected foreign director (Ang Lee sounds just perfect). We’ll have him craft a classic Hollywood private eye tale set in modern-day Los Angeles. The dynamic leading man—Jake Gyllenhaal—will find himself wrapped up in a scandal involving the city’s public works, matrimonial betrayal, money laundering, and a shocking revelation about the woman who hired him—Charlize Theron as Evelyn Mulwray—and her daughter (the up-and-coming Amanda Seyfried).

Or maybe we should choose another iconic role from Jack Nicholson‘s career and recast it with a different young hotshot actor, refactoring the character in a darker and more exaggerated vein than how Nicholson portrayed him. Maybe we’ll find a smackhead to play the part, and—ooh, get this—if he could manage to OD before the movie is even completed, everybody on the planet will dub it the greatest performance, like, ever before the movie is even released. That might be the best idea of all!

Even realizing that being someone who thought Batman Begins was a so-so film puts me in a minuscule minority, the fanfare with which its sequel The Dark Knight has been anticipated is hard for me to comprehend. I realize that we now live in a world where moviegoers are not supposed to have a memory of more than a couple of years, and anything made outside of the current decade is regarded as legitimate fodder to be remade, re-imagined, revisited, or sequelized, but to me there’s just gotta be a point where a line is drawn. Thinking about Heath Ledger reinterpreting the Joker only 19 years after Nicholson so thoroughly and definitively embodied that character reminds me of the time I got kicked out of a bar in Champaign for verbally assaulting a DJ who was scratching Beatles songs; there are some things that you just should not mess with. And yet, that’s where we’re at: nothing is sacred, nothing is untouchable. The majority of our current culture’s artistic talent (just look at that cast—not to mention the considerable ability that is the Nolan brothers) is being focused on movies that are unoriginal ideas more often than not.

That’s not to say that there’s not value in a movie like this, and even I will readily admit that The Dark Knight looks like it’s going to be damn good and I’m excited to see it. I’m just skeptical of the extent of the praise it is receiving already, and particularly of the praise for Ledger’s performance (especially considering that most of those praising it have only seen a few minutes in a trailer). Sentimentality seems to have a lot to do with this; were Ledger still alive, I can’t help thinking, the situation would be quite different. And at the same time, I find myself admitting that my own skepticism is almost surely in part a backlash to what I perceive as premature praise. The movie is finally coming out this weekend, at least—as I write this, people on the east coast are just getting out of the first midnight showings, and people here on the west coast are eagerly waiting in line to see it as soon as possible—so we’ll all know for sure soon enough. I just can’t shake the feeling, though, that I’m the only one who hasn’t already decided on my opinion of it.

Comments (6)

6 Responses to “Lonely Skeptic”:

  • Nah, I’m right there with you. Sort of. I’ll see it when it comes to cable.

    Has it really been 19 years since Nicholson’s Joker?

  • Heh, you DJ heckler. I wish I could dedicate a whole blog / TV series to heckling. And get this… when I was a kid in the summer of 1989, I got a Batman T-shirt… yet I never saw the movie, even to this day. The only movie or TV themed shirt I would ever own or wear.

    You wanna hear something? George Steinbrenner’s asshole son next season wants to put names on the back of Yankees uniforms. First time ever. Is there anything sacred in baseball anymore? The Yankees have already worn advertisements on the uniforms & batting helmet when they played in Japan. I guess I’m the same way with baseball as you are with movies… nothing is original or real anymore, and few everything with skeptic.

  • ..er view everything with skeptic eyes.

  • I hate to tell you, but you’re wrong, wrong, wrong.

    Jack Nicholson’s Joker wasn’t bad, and was appropriate to a movie made by the man who brought us Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (which is, to be quite honest, an underappreciated gem). However, it was, in large part, just Jack Nicholson playing crazy Jack Nicholson — goofy and crazy. Honestly, Mark Hamill did a better version of this sort of Joker in the animated series though.

    Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight is totally different. Not only is it almost impossible to see anything other than the Joker in his performance, but his portrayal of the Joker is of someone who is seriously fucked up. His “jokes” are less funny than sadistic and completely insane in a way more reminiscent of Hannibal Lecter or the serial killer in Se7en than the Three Stooges.

    I went into the movie expecting it to be decent, on the same level as Batman Begins, and I had been pretty skeptical about whether Heath Ledger could really pull off the Joker. When I came out, I was emotionally drained — the same sort of feeling I get after watching (and I mean really watching) a movie like a the Godfather or Platoon. This isn’t a popcorn movie like the 1989 Batman. The film really does transcend the genre, and Ledger’s portrayal is everything it’s been hyped up to be — honestly, I think the hype did it a great disservice.

    The worst part about how hyped up his acting has been is that it makes the others in the cast like Bale, Eckhart, and Oldman look only “okay” in comparison.

    Your other examples are not even close to the mark. Nicholson didn’t own the Joker, not even close to his performances in Cuckoo’s Nest or Chinatown. Ledger really does own this role — even if it wasn’t his last performance, I don’t think anyone would be able to succeed him.

  • I suppose I should’ve anticipated this. So now we’re all going to pretend like Nicholson’s Joker was nothing special, as a further measure to prop up Ledger’s performance by comparison? I don’t get these memos, so it’s hard to keep up sometimes.

    How things have changed. In 1989, Burton’s Batman was seen as a very dark movie. Now you’re calling it a popcorn flick (with derogatory implications) and comparing it to the Three Stooges? That’s taking it a bit far, don’t you think? Although the relation those statements have to the state of movies as a whole is duly noted: I guess our general consciousness’s idea of what constitutes “dark” has shifted quite a bit in the past couple of decades. I’d prefer if we didn’t make intentional efforts to forget about previous landmark moments in film history, though (yes, Burton’s Batman was a landmark film), in the interest of aiding an already over-hyped current release.

  • Burton’s movie was a much darker movie than previous incarnations of Batman, but you also have to remember that at the time, comics were overall a much lighter medium than they are today. The Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns were only a few years old when the movie came out (which means they probably came out only a little while before the preproduction stages of the movie began) — the image that most people had of Batman or the Joker was the 1960s TV show, not, as they do now, the Burton Batman or the animated series Batman. Compared to that, it was dark — I’d say that the difference between the Adam West Batman and the Burton Batman is far larger than the difference between the Burton Batman and the Nolan Batman, actually. But that doesn’t mean that The Dark Knight isn’t darker than the Burton Batman.

    Nicholson’s Joker wasn’t bad, and as I said in my review, it was very in keeping with the tone of the Burton films. You still have to admit it was a far more cartoony universe than the Batman Begins universe; Burton’s universe was tinged with much more black comedy than Nolan’s (and most of Burton’s films are that way). This isn’t necessary better or worse, but it is considerably different. I don’t think calling Burton’s Batman a popcorn flick is necessarily derogatory — I still like it, and I liked Iron Man a lot even though I would also call it much more of a popcorn flick than Batman Begins — but it is a “lighter” film. The Dark Knight Joker doesn’t have gags, or wacky electrocuting joy buzzers, or poisons that make you die with the Joker rictus — he is attacking the very psychology of his victims and trying to turn them into what he is — “an agent of chaos,” as he tells Dent.

    Nicholson’s Joker could be goofy and k-razy! and Jack being Jack in 1989 and be far darker than what people were expecting — there are a fair number of scenes in the movie that I still cringe at in that movie (the scenes with the Joker at the plastic surgeon’s for instance). That sort of thing would not have worked in the Batman Begins-verse though, and Ledger’s portrayal takes the Joker places that are far more dark, far more frightening than anything Nicholson did, and forces you to consider the implications of everything he does and says in a way the Burton Joker never did. That is what elevates this portrayal over the one in the Burton Batman.

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