So how about that new Joker movie? You know, the one that stars Joaquin Phoenix and has stirred up a controversy about its depiction of one of comics’ most psychotic madmen. That one? Well yeah, we’re not talking about that one. Well, not entirely anyway. Instead, we’re looking at one of the film’s major inspirations and how elements taken from that film were used in Joker.
This is The King of Comedy.
During Joker production, director Todd Phillips had stated that the film’s script drew inspiration from many movies like Serpico, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Man Who Laughs, and even his own Hangover films. However, they were two particular films whose concepts and themes are most present in Joker, and both happen to come from the same director. Martin Scorsese, who is widely agreed to be one of the best western film directors ever (Hyped to the max for his upcoming The Irishman coming this November!) was center stage for 1976’S Taxi Driver and 1983’s The King of Comedy retrospectively. Both films starred Robert De Niro and separately dealt with particular themes blended into Joker to create that film’s story. Now the connections to Taxi Driver (How the failures of society create violent people) are worth their own post alone, but we’re focused on Comedy instead for the sake of staying concise.
Starring the aforementioned De Niro, the cast includes the like of Jerry Lewis, Tony Randall, Diahnne Abbott, and Sandra Bernhard. The film centers on Rupert Pukin, a passionate yet unsuccessful comedian who craves nothing more than the spotlight, and to achieve this, he stalks and kidnaps his idol to take the spotlight for himself.
I could go on and on why Martin Scorsese is arguably one of the best in the business, if not the best, but his rather long filmography speaks for it itself. With classics like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas (Which at the time of writing is my favorite film of all time), The Departed, The Wolf of Wall Street, and many more, Scorsese has shown himself to be a force matched only by a few, creating films that seem virtually perfect on every level when it comes to the craftsmanship and care put into each and one of his works. And honestly, The King of Comedy is no exception. This an exceptionally well put together film that both garners laugh, but some genuine tension when the time calls for it.
What so interesting about this movie is while the film-making is still as amazing as expected from a Scorsese production, this film, in any way, was a significant departure from his earlier work (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull) due to its highly minimalist style and an obvious dark comedic tone. De Niro is also cast against type as a psychotic loony nerd, while Lewis (The man who called the King of Comedy, wink, wink) has a rare non-comedic role. Yet despite these, the execution is 100% on point. There’s not a moment in this film I can call wasted, not one bad actor dragging the film down, so many striking shots in terms of framing and composition. From top to bottom, this is one tight package.
Speaking of Robert De Niro, Scorsese has gone on record to say that this was his favorite collaboration with the former, and it’s straightforward to see why. Both hilarious and creepy, De Niro brings this complex character to life with gleeful quickness and a sense of childish playfulness. I was really taken aback by his comedic timing (I really forgot how good De Niro really is in less serious roles). He brings some wonderful energy to the proceedings. He’s both hilarious and weird in the character’s uncertainty. His work here is on par with some of his most iconic performances and it should be seen up to par with those personally.
The supporting cast is terrific as expected, but the real standout has to be Jerry Lewis. As previously stated, this is a more dramatic role for him, and here he proves that he does have the chops for it. While he brought himself great success through his own merit, Jerry Langford is a sympathetic character who is consistently reminded of it to the point of ad nauseam by his rabid fan base. He is lonely, isolated, and utterly committed to his job, and his frame blocks any sort of chance of having a normal life. And Lewis manages to perfectly convey this onscreen while at the same time showing fantastic chemistry with De Niro when those two share scenes together. Those scenes are the highlights of the movie and demonstrate the themes of the movie perfectly.
Speaking of which, what is the central idea at the end of the day? Well, simply put, The King of Comedy examines aspects of celebrity culture that we have come to accept but was still new at the time. It presents a very dark look at the concept of celebrity worship, of the audience’s identification with an artist and the fan. Both Lanford and Rupert are sad, unfortunate byproducts of this reality. Not only have these depictions aged well, they feel true to the point, you could understandably mistake this for a documentary.
So how does this tie into the upcoming Joker? Well, thankfully, the explanation is pretty straightforward. Joker’s central lead Arthur Fleck is a stand-up comedian who looks up to a talk-show host(Played by De Niro) as a source of inspiration. As with The King of Comedy, the relationship these two would share will end up being less than pleasant. De Niro himself has stated that his character is a nod to his performance as Rupkin in the latter, who was also obsessed with a talk-show host. It’s a really nice callback, and I cannot wait to see how this plays out in Joker.
In regards to The King of Comedy, it’s a Scorsese film that is as good as his most famous films and shown by fans of the director or De Niro, film fanatics, really everybody who is sorta interested in the themes this movie presents. It used to be less talked about among Scorsese’s work, but Joker has done a nice job indirectly giving The King of Comedy to be regarded in a much more positive light. Funny, tense, wonderfully acted, and perfectly crafted from beginning to end, this is a film that I sincerely wished I’ve seen much sooner than now
Final Rating: 5/5