It’s the 1970s! Or is it, as I don’t think we’re ever really told? The guys in suits on the subway are definitely dressed in the corporate attire of today, but it’s clearly the New York City of Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy. And of course we get Bobby De Niro in the cast just to sledgehammer the fact.
Speaking of the films of Martin Scorsese, it’s odd how Scorsese was originally tied to this film – as a producer – yet not long after he left the project, he was comparing all superhero films to theme park rides. To its credit, Joker belongs in a different camp to the rest of the DC and Marvel universes, but who knows how much of that was driven by Scorsese’s initial involvement.
Some of the success of Joker probably hinges on the fact that much of its audience won’t have seen Taxi Driver or The King of Comedy, in much the same way that 2019’s Midsommar was considered a groundbreaking horror film amongst people who hadn’t seen The Wicker Man. And just to labour that point, Midsommar is a wholly unoriginal piece of work. It wasn’t influenced by Robin Hardy’s 1973 film, it’s a carbon copy in everything but name and location. If Todd Phillips’ Joker was one of the surprises of 2019, Ari Aster’s Midsommar was undoubtedly the year’s biggest disappointment.
Back to Phillips’ film, and it’s interesting to see how the portrayal of the Joker character always seems to match the tone of the times, and it’s been getting darker and darker. First we had Caesar Romero as the cheerful ‘60s retiree Joker, followed by Jack Nicholson as the tired ‘80s Yuppy Joker, and Mark Hamill as the animated ‘90s cynic. The 21st century, to match the darkness of the post-9/11 world we live in, has given us Heath Ledger, Jared Leto and Joaquin Phoenix – two Oscar-winning performances and … Jared Leto. I’ve said before that Leto is this century’s Nic Cage, and much like some of Cage’s performances, his version of the Joker was just embarrassing to watch.
One of the most damning things that Todd Phillips’ Joker does is paint Thomas Wayne as an unsavoury member of the ruling elite, rather than the saint he’s usually painted out to be, most recently by Linus Roache in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. It’s pretty unforgivable really, and only serves an element of the plot I wish they hadn’t touched (a family connection akin to Bryan Singer introducing Super-Boy in his disappointing Superman Returns).
We also get an appearance of the Wayne butler Alfred Pennyworth (played by Douglas Hodge), although I’m not sure if he’s ever referred to as such in the film. It’s a veiled reference, only slightly more so than the shot of the young Bruce Wayne sliding down the (bat) pole of his playground. Again, saint becomes sinner and Alfred comes across as an arsehole to our anti-hero Arthur Fleck.
I enjoyed that one of Arthur’s gags in his failed stand-up performance is an old classic: ‘It’s funny, when I was a little boy and told people I wanted to be a comedian, everyone laughed at me. Well, no one’s laughing now!’ Has a Bob Monkhouse joke ever had such an impact on a Hollywood film? I have my fingers crossed that they did out his ‘animal biscuits / broken seal’ gag for the sequel, as recounted here by Frank Skinner:
Bob Monkhouse told me he used to do this joke where he’d come on and say: “I love those animal biscuits they sell at Marks & Spencer. Have you seen them, those animal-shaped biscuits? They’re lovely. But I got a box the other day, and I opened it and it said on it: Do not eat if the seal is broken. And would you believe it?” But he said: “On a great night, I don’t have to say, ‘would you believe it?’ But on a bad night, I have to say, ‘The biscuit’s shaped like a seal.’”
Last but not least, the music in Joker is incredible. The combination of Charlie Chaplin’s Smile on the soundtrack, and the footage of Chaplin in Modern Times inside the cinema is a really nice touch. But the music supervisor on this film – George Drakoulias alongside music coordinator Meghan Currier – is absolutely on fire. We get an iconic scene soundtracked by Gary Glitter’s Rock And Roll Part 2, alongside appearances by Herb Alpert’s Spanish Flea, Cream’s White Room, the aforementioned Smile, and Frank Sinatra’s That’s Life and Send In The Clowns, and that’s before we get to Hildur Guðnadóttir’s sublime Oscar-winning score.
Hit: Hoyt’s Office
Hidden Gem: Call Me Joker