MOVIE REVIEW : Bat angst in Basic Black

Times Film Critic

As its trailer has already hinted, "Batman" (citywide) is very much a movie and a hero for the '80s. Is it interesting? Fitfully. Is it fun? Not much, Gotham City fans, not much.

It's a murky, brooding piece, set in a twisted city almost choked with evil and inertia, and Bruce Wayne, half of its hero's dual identities, is very nearly in the same fix. Driven to right a naughty world the best that one man can, he's withdrawn, cerebral, severely absent-minded. As director Tim Burton sees him, he's practically the Hamlet of millionaire philanthropist socialites.

When he puts on his Batmuscles and his Bathat, his Batjock, his Batgauntlets and his world heavyweight's Batbelt, almost nothing is left of him but glitteringly blue-gray eyes and a voluptuously full mouth. If a costume alone could stop crime, this one would, since it almost stops Michael Keaton.

In the opposite corner, wearing purple satin, clown white, green hair and a permanent rictus, is the picture's big noise, the Joker, the dirtiest trickster since G. Gordon Liddy. Never still for a millisecond, Jack Nicholson's Joker preens and prances, drum major for a squad of sociopaths, detonating his noxious jokes like cherry bombs. ("You're insane!" Joker: "I thought I was a Pisces.")

Director Burton has sensibly turned his back on the camp of the '60s "Batman" TV series, and has drawn his menacing atmosphere from the Gotham City of "Batman's" creator, Bob Kane. Burton read his audience right in that respect. And with the production designs of Anton Furst ("The Company of Wolves," "Full Metal Jacket") and Danny Elfman's darkly enveloping score, he has a shiveringly dense and poetic city against which to set his characters.

Unfortunately, the screenplay, credited to both Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren from Hamm's story and Kane's characters, doesn't give those characters a fighting chance. It flops about, unsure of which of its scarred protagonists it finds the most seductive, and it's disastrously low on the sort of wit that can make a gargantuan movie lovable.

The movie's first half hour is a thicket of exposition, yet it never answers a few basic Batquestions in every mind. The Joker we learn almost everything about: his plans to take over first the girlfriend (Jerry Hall), then the chair of crime lord Carl Grissom (Jack Palance). Batman, his savvy butler Alfred (the estimable Michael Gough) and the Batgadgets remain annoyingly uninvestigated. So does the moment when Kim Basinger's Vicki Vale notices it's Bruce Wayne fiddling away in that Batcave.

So Bruce Wayne was traumatized by witnessing the murder of his parents when he was 9, and that has led him into this double life of midnight vigilantism. Why bats? Wherefore bat caves? The fact that he's mortal makes him especially fascinating, yet the movie (and that Batrig) never lets us worry for a second that anything can happen to him.

The volatile Keaton, an extremely interesting casting choice if he had a chance to let some of his dangerousness out, remains tamped-down and muted. His Bruce Wayne is as magnetic as one can make a character carved out of soap, but it's hardly Keaton's fault. As "ace photographer Vicki Vale," Basinger again does her magic of making a stock character warm, interesting and irreplaceable through some mysterious chemistry all her own. Meanwhile, Nicholson (quoted this week as saying, "I wanted to see how far I could go and I've never hit my head on top") has corkscrewed through the roof and is reaching into the ozone.

The Joker begins as Gotham City gangster Jack Napier before a confrontation with Batman tips him into a vat of toxic waste, turning him into a party-hearty misanthrope. His notion is to paralyze Gothamites with Smylex gas and lethal toiletries. His target? Apparently anything that moves, including his own henchmen, and a few things that don't, like a museum's worth of the art treasures of the Western world, which go under in an orgy of slashing and splashing. He does spare one: a shrieking nightmare vision by contemporary Angst -master Francis Bacon that the Joker kinda likes.

The vandalism is supposed to suggest the lengths to which this sadist will go. There may even be a lost Ted Turner-colorizing joke somewhere in the melee. But not even the fact that the paintings look like K mart repros can keep this sequence from being a true stomach churner. Not in today's world of indiscriminate art whackos.

Nicholson's Joker will be the pivotal point for many. It's his energy, spurting like an artery, that keeps the picture alive; it's certainly not the special effects, the editing, which has no discernible rhythm, or the flaccid screenplay. Nicholson keeps things moving higher and higher, even with his reading of the line, "It's time to retire," throwing in a voice that's pure John Huston.

But it's also a performance of such draining intensity and so few really quotable lines, most of which have been packed into the trailer, that it has us on the ropes begging for mercy long before the Joker waltzes into his climax. To a die-hard Nicholson fan, it's unthinkable that a day would come when you wished Jack Nicholson would get off the screen, just so this headache would let up for a minute. But "Batman" has managed it. Talk about a toxic waste. . . .

(The Joker, with his gruesome death dealing, is also the cautionary figure for parents of young children. Take that PG-13 very seriously; this is where bad dreams are born.)

The Joker's screaming machinations become so exhausting that to get away from them, we begin looking past him, straight into some puzzling inconsistencies. The gag of the TV anchorpersons, getting progressively scuzzy because they're afraid of sampling the Joker's line of killer-toiletries, is a funny one. Then why don't we see dapper Dans like Dist. Atty. Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams, thrown away in a sub-cameo) also getting frayed in the personal daintiness department? Does he have his own line of after shave?

When, in a riotous parade through Gotham's scrunched-up streets, the Joker kills about a quarter of the revelers with poison gas, why don't the other hundreds swarm over him and beat that silly grin off his face? And in the bell tower "Vertigo" finale, after the three principals have inched their way perilously to the top, where in the name of holy Bat guano did those Joker henchmen come from?

Sidestepped most disastrously is the meaning of the conflict between Batman and the Joker. Batman is hardly Superman, unscarred psychically, and his duel with a man who could have been another facet of his own personality should have resonated. Instead, the Joker has been demoted into a broad-scale sociopath, without a tempter's power or a mythic villain's complexity. And that's the movie's real undoing.

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