Joker (2019), directed by Todd Phillips, is an example of how a movie can be highly flawed and highly derivative in some ways and still be significant. Though the story is uneven and ambiguous and the Joker himself (Joaquin Phoenix) isn’t a very coherently constructed character, the film manages to tap into the nihilistic zeitgeist of contemporary life. The strong reactions it provoked are proof of this.
A more “serious” filmmaker than Phillips, best known for popular comedies such as The Hangover (parts one, two, and three, sigh), might have created a more fully developed joker -perhaps one who was more politically correct and sympathetic or, conversely, one who was a pure villain. Phillips was content to let the character stray all over the map and leave us with a perplexing, ambiguous character and film that may be, after all, appropriate for the Joker.
The Joker’s Heavy-handed “Influences”
I was never a huge fan of Batman (or any comic/superhero franchise) and missed most of the movies. I do have childhood recollections of the original TV series, though, so references such as Gotham City and Bruce Wayne are familiar enough to me. That said, Phillips’ Joker borrows (or outright steals) more from 70s Scorcese films than from the Batman universe.
Set approximately in a gritty 1970s Gotham City, which is essentially New York, many scenes depict a Times Square-like neighborhood that immediately evokes Taxi Driver. The Joker, née Arthur Fleck, does have similarities with Travis Bickle after he transforms from an anonymous misfit loner to a violent vigilante. Yet he’s equally Rupert Pupkin, from The King of Comedy, another entry in the Scorcese-DeNiro partnership, the character who becomes obsessed with and eventually kidnaps a TV host played by Jerry Lewis.
In Joker, Robert DeNiro is the one playing the TV host, Murray Franklin (who evokes a TV radio host named Joe Franklin). Fleck, like Pupkin, has imaginary conversations with the TV host and visualizes himself as a star.
There’s a dubious assumption that if you blatantly refer to other works while winking at the audience, you’re doing a high-minded tribute rather than simply copying. The fact that DeNiro gave his blessing to the project with his participation…