Jack Nicholson's performance in Tim Burton's 1989 Batman is the grain alcohol punch that, as at a college party, gets you drunk enough to think you're having a great time only to wake up the next morning in a pool of stale vomit, with a pounding hangover and a dick drawn on your forehead in Sharpie.
Director Tim Burton may be one of the most frustrating figures in modern cinema. The man is obviously brilliant, and yet rarely makes a great or even good film. Nor has he produced a true masterpiece, something on the level of David Cronenberg's The Fly, David Lynch's Mulholland Drive or even Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight.
Batman is a perfect example of Burton's weakness: style over story.
In this case, it's probably not Burton's fault. Like many Hollywood pictures, Batman (according to the press of the time) was hurried into production to meet a summer of 1989 release date without necessarily being, oh, what is that word... ready. Sure they had a script, but clearly it wasn't a script everyone was happy with as Warren Skaaren (who also came in to do a last-minute rewrite on Beetlejuice) was hired to do a quick fix. Worse still, story decisions were being made on the fly during shooting, always a terrible idea. (Except for Jaws in which literally writing the script while it was being shot seemed to work out just fine.)
A screenplay is a blueprint. You wouldn't start construction on a building if your blueprints weren't done. Otherwise you're going to wonder why the toilets ended up in the boardroom. Same with a movie. A script needs to be as solid and complete as possible before shooting begins because once shooting starts, in the panic of production, ideas about the script are often made in desperation. Desperate decisions are often regrettable ones. Batman is full of regrettable decisions.
But as the film progresses, the nuts loosen and the wheels begin to fall off the bus. By the middle of the second act, Batman finds itself lurching from idea to idea, moment to moment, without any clear path or flow. Take the Joker's evil plot to terrorize Gotham by poisoning health and beauty aides. This storyline, which seems kind of important, is almost treated as an after-thought. The only concrete example of the effect it's having on Gotham is two news anchors reporting on the story, who deprived of their possibly poisoned make-up, now look terrible on camera. (Oddly enough, no one else in the film seems affected.) This supposedly crucial story engine is wrapped up when Batman tells Vikki Vale he's figured out (off-screen and clearly in his spare time) which products are safe and which are poisoned and all she has to is publish the info to bring the Joker's reign of kinda almost terror to an end. Ho hum. Sort of like why did they even bother in the first place?
At one point, the Joker falls in love with Vikki Vale. This happens after he sees a picture of her taken by an underling. I suspect this plotline was something surgically stapled to the script late into the shoot as the scene at which the photos of Vikki are taken is the same scene where the Joker murders a rival crime lord. In other words, the two of them were at the same place at the same time. Imagine you're a highly-paid Hollywood screenwriter. If you want the Joker to see Vikki and fall in love, why do it through a picture when you could so easily have brought them face to face? A screenwriter not scrambling to meet a deadline (we need those fucking pages NOW, Warren!) might have realized that and fixed it in a rewrite.
What the purpose of that scene was, other than to piss me off, is beyond all rational comprehension.
And then there's the museum scene where Joker and his men deface great art while dancing to a Prince song. It's not confusing; it's just embarrassing. Truly embarrassing.
Batman arrives, shootout, car chase. What's missing? Where the hell is the Joker in all this? He's the big bad guy and yet the pursuit of Batman is left to his boys. And why is there a goddamn kung fu fight in the middle of it all? Other than someone (Burton?) thought it would be "cool."
It's a weak scene, with weak dialogue ("It's not a perfect world." "It doesn't have to be a perfect world.") mainly because there is little sense of a relationship between these two people. The whole Bruce/Vikki love subplot is a trainwreck, and the only purpose it seems to serve is giving Joker a convenient hostage to drag up to the belltower at the film's climax. (And speaking of belltowers, why they decided that an homage to Hitchcock's absolute masterpiece, you know, the kind of film Tim Burton has yet to make, Vertigo was appropriate is another of those questions that leave us choking down a greasy breakfast and chugging tons of coffee the morning after.)
While the acting is mostly good (given dialogue so cheesy it could be sprayed onto crackers as appetizers for a redneck wedding) Michael Keaton as Batman is, honestly, a terrible choice. I know Burton had a boner for him (as an actor) following Beetlejuice, but it's an epic fail. He has no gravitas as Batman and the goofy/absent-minded Bruce Wayne characterization he was given just doesn't work. Keaton has never been a favorite actor of mine. He's too snarky, too smug, and all that works against his Batman,. He's got that little sneer you just want to slap off his face. He looks like a little punk. Batman is not a little punk. And while he shined in Beetlejuice, here he can neither engage the viewer's sympathy nor win their respect.
Fortunately, there's Jack Nicholson. His Joker is the one element in the film that really works. The movie comes alive when he's on screen (unless he's dancing to Prince, in which case the movie makes you want to hide behind the nearest potted plant in shame) and one finds oneself hoping the scenes without him don't turn out to be too terribly long.
The Joker character and Nicholson's performance manage to transform what could have been a disastrous film into something that is a watchable maybe once every decade. And for that we must bestow some limited praise.
Now if you'll excuse me I have to go drink a quart of Gatorade, take a hot bath and find something that cleans Sharpie off skin.