Taxi Driver (1976)

Directed by: Martin Scorsese Written by: Paul Schrader

Taxi_Driver_(1976_film_poster)My trajectory of backward film watching continues. Having watched The King of Comedy to study its influence on Joker, I inevitably decided to give Taxi Driver a try. The film has an interesting narrative structure. While its not non-linear or abstract, Taxi Driver doesn’t introduce its antagonist (Harvey Keitel) or secondary protagonist (Jodie Foster) until quite late in its runtime. As a result, a degree of a realism is granted to the bizarre and twisted tale of Travis Bickle. His life cannot be reduced to one narrative arc, but instead is a series of episodes that add up to something.

Taxi Driver takes its time in telling viewers what we should think of Bickle. In fact, what exactly we are to think of this anti-hero (and the ideology of his creators) is never really clarified. We are introduced to 26-year-old Travis as he enters the taxi business. His motivation for doing so, other than presumably a need for cash, is that he needs a distraction to keep his frequently angry imagination distracted. 

The film’s plot then seems to take shape as Travis attempts to start a relationship with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a volunteer for Senator Charles Palantine’s (Leonard Harris) presidential campaign . Travis follows Betsy before even meeting her and decides she needs saving from her mundane work under the watch of a campaign official named Tom (Albert Brooks). Betsy agrees to go on a date with Travis, and the relationship appears to be going in a positive direction. Then, however, Travis takes Betty to see a pornographic movie on a subsequent date and, to put it mildly, she loses interest.

As is the case with the Joker/King of Comedy comparison, the contrast between Joker and Taxi Driver can best be described as centreing around ambiguity. Despite having broadly leftist politics, Joker was prejudged and still gets labelled by some as a white-male-rage movie. Taxi Driver, ironically, fits that bill far better than Joker, even as some critics decry Joker as a poor imitation of Taxi Driver. But while the best way to defend Joker is to argue that its critics have simply interpreted it incorrectly, the best defence of Taxi Driver is to argue that there’s value to its nihilism. 

Taxi Driver is a film that forces viewers to engage with the ambiguity of the moral agency of individuals. It is both possible to see Travis’s initial attempts to woo Betsy as inappropriate and presumptuous, while acknowledging that he is nonetheless right about her unhappy working relationship with Tom. Similarly, one can be disturbed by Travis’s choice of second-date movie , while also acknowledging that the choice was not an act of insensitivity, but a reflection of his strong alienation from social normalcy. 

Taxi Driver’s ambiguity extends beyond the realm of good vs bad, and into the realm of politics. While I like the film, and largely trust the intent of the artists behind it, part of me worried that its anti-New York rhetoric was in line with the values of that era: values that would bring about Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

Travis develops a dislike for Senator Palantine. Is this a political feeling on Travis’s part, or is it solely tied to his feelings for Betsy? We’re never given a reliable answer. And furthermore, what kind of politician even is Palantine? Joker’s politician, Thomas Wayne, is obviously a proto-Michael Bloomberg. Palantine, on the other hand, could be any Democrat from Ed Koch to Bernie Sanders. I would argue the best interpretation is that Palantine falls somewhere in the bland middle of that spectrum (a blandness highlighted in a scene where Tom argues that their campaign’s slogan is We Are the People,” instead of “We are the People”). I say this because Travis feels disdain for society as a whole, and as such, his enemy would be best embodied by an arrogant, but generic politician. That said, I couldn’t really put my finger on what kind of politician Palantine was meant to be, let alone to what degree Schrader, Scorsese, etc were “on his side.”

Joker is the origin story of a villain. It is a tale that speaks to how villainy emerged from a largely gentle soul. Taxi Driver is almost Joker’s opposite. When the film starts Travis may not be a villain (in fact his hatred for villains is one of his motives), but one woulds be remiss to call him a gentle soul. He is cynical, manipulative and a tough-on-crime type. Through its unusual narrative structure, Travis finds his way into the protagonist’s seat. Both Joker and Taxi Driver thus end up invoking the spirit of the Phil Ochs song “There But for Fortune.”

Show me the prison, show me the jail

Show me the prisoner whose face has grown pale

And I’ll show you a young man with many reasons why

And there but for fortune, may go you or I

Joker, of course, is truer to the song’s overall message: that social oppression can bring out the worst in us and cause cycles of suffering. But Taxi Driver catches another of the song’s themes: that life is a lottery. Travis is a morally gray character: contemporary viewers could describe him as being on the incel spectrum. But fortune strikes and the brighter side of Travis’ moral compass comes to guide him when it matters most. 

Joker’s message is one that we can (sort of) act upon: care for the downtrodden and we’ll have a more peaceful society. Taxi Driver doesn’t really offer a moral: only an observation. Good and evil can stem from the same ambiguous agent, and which one ends up mattering is entirely unpredictable. 

Sonic the Hedgehog (2020)

Directed by: Jeff Fowler Written by: Pat Casey and Josh Miller

Sonic_the_Hedgehog_posterWhat should we expect from “adapted” movies? Personally, I’m not sure if I can provide a consistent, unbiased answer. As a child I could nitpick about Harry Potter films for their differences from the books, and I was highly disappointed by the liberties taken in the film version of A Series of Unfortunate Events (save for Jim Carrey’s amusing dinosaur improv). Nowadays, I’m more open to the idea that stories can and perhaps should subvert themselves as they are translated between mediums. There are still times, however, when I show someone a film in place of making them read a book and resent what the film turns out to be (I’m looking at you Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close). 

Along with Cats, Sonic the Hedgehog stands out as a film that changed itself in response to fan pressure. A backlash against the way Sonic appeared (particularly his humanesque eyes) in the film’s original trailer, lead to the character being redesigned to appear almost exactly as he does in his cartoons/video-games . 

To me this seemed an odd decision. Surely Sonic fans would be curious (not just peeved) about this weird new iteration of their beloved character and would still ultimately go to the movie. Nevertheless, the creators caved and the film has been a box office success. Having since seen the movie I can somewhat appreciate why the change was essential. 

Sonic (a blue “hedgehog” voiced by Parks and Recreation’s Ben Schwartz), comes from a distant planet. In search of safety, he teleports to Earth and develops an affection for the small town of Green Hills, particularly police officer Tom Wachowski (James Marsden) and his veterinarian wife Maddie (Tika Sumpter). The catch, however, is that Sonic never reveals himself to any of his human “friends,” and the loneliness gradually gets to him. 

Sonic’s frustration manifests one night, when his super-speed produces a signal that tips off US intelligence to his alien presence. Sonic is then forced to go into hiding, as the military calls on the twisted-inventor Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey) to catch him. For a brief moment, it appears the film is making a critique of shady U.S. intelligence operations, but any viewer hoping for such ambition will end up disappointed.

Carrey is undoubtedly one of the film’s selling points. His first scene is a dramatic one filled with improvised verbal and bodily quips. As a standalone oddity, the moment is a great one. On the flip-side, Carrey’s whimsy is never quite systematized, and Dr. Robotnik is never quite given the chance to fully establish himself as a character.

While I have virtually no experience playing the Sonic video games, one thing I thought about while watching the movie was the oddness of having its protagonist-pairing be Sonic and a human (Marsden). Why, I silently wondered, was Sonic’s fox-sidekick, Miles “Tails” Prower , absent?  My mind then wandered to the fact that Robin is absent in most of the live-action Batman movies. Batman movies, unlike some of their cartoon counterparts, tend to have a serious and dusky air to them. Robin, the brightly colored “boy wonder,” undoubtedly changes that affect and allows Batman stories to revel in their campier side. 

Sonic the Hedgehog may not be a dark movie, but separating Sonic from Tails (and other similar characters), serves the same function as separating Batman from Robin. Sonic is adapted from a whimsical world: a world populated by colorful villains like Robotnik. But it would seem that there’s an expectation when media is translated to movie form, that it must have more gravitas than it source. As such, Batman can’t fight alongside Robin, and Sonic could not fight alongside Tails (unless of course a sequel comes around). Instead, he had to fight alongside a bland, smalltown, human cop, who has to learn a valuable lesson about being true to oneself and one’s community.

So why was it necessary that Sonic look exactly as he had always looked? Because Sonic is about the only piece that made this movie a Sonic movie. If your movie claims to be about a video game character, but opts for a generic Hollywood buddy plot, over setting up a true video-game sensibility, then what short of the character’s likeness ties you work to the source material? 

Years ago there was an attempt to make a Super Mario Bros movie. A gritty work that took great liberties with its source, the film has a cult-following, but isn’t exactly a beloved classic. Sonic, by contrast, is play-it-safe, accessible, and free from any substantial darkness. Nonetheless, the films are two sides of the same coin. Both Mario and Sonic live in colorful videogame worlds with goofy aesthetics. Mario for instance, is an Italian plumber who lives in a world inhabited by turtles and mushrooms (an idea the Mario film barely acknowledges, though the Sonic film gives it a coy nod). 

Film adaptors could have taken these aesthetics and relished in the challenge of extending them into full stories. And even within the confines of its current structure, Sonic the Hedgehog has some clear “just missed” moments. In one scene for instance, Tom asks Sonic what he is and Sonic replies “a hedgehog.” In theory this could be a hilariously absurd line. A “hedgehog,” describes a small, quadripedal, Earthling mammal. Sonic is a human-child-sized, bipedal, blue creature from another planet. Neither Sonic’s delivery nor Tom’s response, however, truly bring out this pleasingly absurd incongruence. Sonic’s existence is treated as “weird,” but never as Alice in Wonderland weird. 

Sonic the Hedgehog offers an accessible story about a familiar character with a memorable enough sense of humour. Nonetheless, I can’t help but be frustrated with the kind of adaptation that seems more concerned with putting a marketable character on screen, than asking how such a character can best use the screen. I have nothing against James Marsden, but I’d far rather see a Sonic (with or without humanesque eyes) zooming across the screen with a cartoon fox, than a familiar face arbitrarily learning life lessons alongside the least cartoonish co-protagonist imaginable. 

Onward (2020)

Directed by: Dan Scanlon Written by: Scanlon, Keith Bunin and Jason Headley

Onward_posterPrior to seeing Onward I saw brief interviews with its writer-director Dan Stanlon. Scanlon spoke of how the film was inspired by his own relationship with his brother and father. He then called Pixar a special company, because it takes chances on “real” stories such as his own.  On the one hand it is easy to see why Scanlon would say this: imagine getting the opportunity to turn one of your defining life-stories into a mass-watched fantasy epic! 

On the other hand, Scanlon’s one-liner about Pixar’s uniqueness is revisionist history. It erases what has actually made the studio iconic. In my review of Toy Story 4 I argued there were two distinct eras of Pixar filmmaking: Toy Story-to-Ratatouille and Wall-E-to-the-present. The key distinction between these eras is that Wall-E, along with some of the films that followed it, is almost too depressing to be a family movie.

Alternatively, one could argue that it was Ratatouille that started the modern Pixar era. Ratatouille is an inventive and funny family film. Unlike Wall-E, Up and Toy Story 3, it doesn’t beg for an Oscar via tear-jerker moments. Nonetheless, Ratatouille’s formula differs in a key way from earlier Pixar films. Prior to Ratatouille, Pixar made movies based around concrete categories: toys, bugs, monsters, sea-creatures, superheroes and cars. Rataoutille may star rats, but it is not a “rat” movie. Unlike the Toy Story films, which deal with the toy-specific problems of “realness” and “obsolescence,” Rataoutille’s story is a human tale, albeit one with rodent characteristics.

Onward is a Ratatouille-style Pixar film. While it is nominally about fantasy creatures, its stars are highly anthropomorphic, and their struggles largely transcend their Elvin identities. The film explains that the same technologies that we enjoy became available in its fantasy realm. Because magic is supposedly difficult to use, the arrival of electricity, cars, etc rendered it obsolete. 

Onward is also a clear product of the Wall-E era (though unlike the older movie, Onward is unequivocally kid friendly). Sadness is introduced to the film right away as we are introduced to brothers Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt). Ian is celebrating his sixteenth birthday, and on the occasion is reminded of the absence of his deceased father. 

The plot takes off as Ian and Barley’s mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) presents the boys with a gift left behind by their father: a magic staff. The staff contains a spell to temporarily resurrect the father, but a shortcoming in the spell’s execution sends the boys off on a road-trip in search of further magic. 

The character of Barley is one of the film’s strongpoints. A Dungeons & Dragons nerd, and civilly-disobedient protector of magical-heritage-buildings, Barley has nuance as a character. While his hobbies make him seem like your traditional, goofball sidekick, he is in fact a fairly competent young-man. Unfortunately, his conservative-suburban society is biased against his particular competences. Pixar has produced a good-roster of sidekick-protagonists over the years: Buzz Lightyear, Mike Wazowski, Dory and Sadness, but with Barley, Scanlon and his co-writers came up with a memorably subversive way to deploy the sidekick role. 

Less compelling for me, however, was Ian. Onward, in the broadest sense, shares a narrative formula with Finding Nemo. Both stories are rooted in the death of a young parent. Both are road-trip movies. And both road trips pair a worry-wart protagonist with a goofy sidekick. But this is where the difference between pre-Ratatouille and post-Ratatouille Pixar comes in. Finding Nemo is rooted in the category of “sea-creatures.” As such, its parental death is specific to the marine context. Viewers are lulled into a wonderful-life under the sea, but then made to live through a sea-specific-specific danger as it takes its terrible toll. Finding Nemo’s protagonist Marlin is shaped by an obvious trauma, and we viewers share in that trauma. 

Onward by contrast is not a film whose narrative pieces all come from a category. While pre-Wall-E Pixar films can have sad moments, Onward set out to be sad from the get go. It has no scene that compares to Nemo’s barracuda moment. Instead, it just has expository dialogue where Ian and his Mom tell us how they feel, and consequently how the movie would like viewers to feel.  This discrepancy continues throughout the films’ runs. While Marlin develops due to a combination of friendship, quirky luck and genuine learning, all of which stem naturally from his aquatic-context, Ian is regularly set up with situations where it is overtly stated that he just has to “believe in himself” or otherwise do the right thing.

Onward is a cautionary tale of how deriving a fictional-universe from emotions and ideas, instead of doing it the other way around, can make those ideas come across as predictable and plot-stunting. Toy Story found its depth, not by repeating familiar platitudes of human sentimentality, but through exploring the theoretical anxieties of plastic beings. A Bug’s Life, meanwhile, is a great example of a “we are the 99%” fable, because it doesn’t force that message on viewers. Rather builds to it as it observes the collectivist yet conservative dynamics within an ant-colony. 

On the other hand, Onward is undoubtedly a wonderfully imaginative film, and there are some interesting ideas in its core plot. Critical as I am of the way Ian’s self-doubt and sadness are portrayed, at very least, the epiphany he has at the film’s climax is a clever one. Hopefully Pixar can remember what made its early films classics, and return to this formula in the future. Onward may be a stumbling block in that regard, but its celebration of benevolent-nerdiness and nostalgia at very least makes it worth the watch.  

Lost in Translation (2003)

Written and directed by: Sofia Coppola

Lost_in_Translation_posterA good movie is often one that lingers in your mind  long after you’ve seen it. There are exceptions. Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy consists of long form conversations between two characters. While one might think that that’s about as mundane as it gets, the ability to reproduce believable human interactions is an impressive one. And while I couldn’t tell you if I have much in common with the Before series’ protagonists, there was something appealing about hanging out with them. Because of their mundanity, I can’t remember almost anything from the Before films. I will never forget, however, how much I enjoyed them.

Lost in Translation comes across as a variant of the Before movies: one coated in urbanity and melancholy. If that’s a gimmick you only want to see once, then by all means pick, one oeuvre or the other. If, however, you want more of that Before-feeling, than Lost in Translation is an excellent option.

The film tells the story of two people going through periods of jadedness. Actor Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is bored and alienated from his family, while appearing equally unexcited to be staying in Tokyo. Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), meanwhile, is newly married and just out of college, and her husband (Giovanni Ribisi) already seems to have lost interest in spending time with her. Bob and Charlotte go on to seamlessly start a quasi-romantic friendship. 

That’s about the extent of the film’s story. One would be hardpressed to say Bob and Charlotte develop as characters in any big-sense. Their arc is instead a real one; they don’t overcome their problems, but they cope with them. And their coping mechanism is simple: finding a person to talk to.

Lost in Translation could be set in Tokyo for various reasons. The city may very well just have been a favorite pallet of  Sofia Coppola’s. The city also serves a functional role: it is not rife with English speakers, and as such Bob and Charlotte truly are devoid of people to talk to. More interestingly, the setting make obvious what otherwise might be too subtle an idea to express. The film is not about Tokyo, Tokyo is just a metaphor. While Bob is frustrated with literal translation problems (and the conflation of Ls and Rs in Japanese-English pronunciation), the film is far more concerned with our inability to translate thought processes. In one of the film’s iconic scenes, Bob stars in a Japanese Whiskey commercial helmed by a (wannabe) visionary director (Yutaka Tadokoro). The director gives passionate instructions which are passed on to Bob in very simple translation. While many viewers will just pick up on situational humor and Bob’s impatience, engagement with the director adds another dimension to the scene’s air of frustration. The director has a lot to say, but because he directs mere commercials, and because his co-workers can’t (for various reasons) understand him, he goes unheard: untranslated.

The other moment from Lost in Translation that stuck with me comes when Bob’s Japanese co-workers as to take a photo with him while Charlotte looks on. This photo should be a good souvenir of Bob’s Japanese trip: it depicts what he went to Japan to do, and the people from Japan he engaged with. That Charlotte, an ephemeral friend, would go on to represent Japan in Bob’s mind might not make sense to a lot of people. But I suspect if more of us were honest about our experiences, a lot more of us would seem offbeat and out of place. It doesn’t matter what language we engage in: we’re always lost in translation. 

Secret Zoo (2020)

Written and directed by: Son Jae-gon

Secret_Zoo-P1

The last time I saw a Korean film it was a certain elaborate, quasi-horror piece about a family of tricksters taking a stab at class society. Secret Zoo is no Parasite. It is a simpler, less emotionally troubling work. But the comparison is an interesting one to keep in mind. Secret Zoo is also a story of tricksters; also a story of a family (of sorts). And most importantly, it also makes jabs at the capitalist class.

Secret Zoo’s critical politics start subtley enough. We are introduced to protagonist Tae-soo (Ahn Jae-Hong) an up-and-coming corporate lawyer. While he has the degree and wears the suit, he is in a struggle to attain job security. He also doesn’t quite catch on to the full character of corporate culture, as evidenced, for instance, when he doesn’t figure out how to register his office card key. 

While Hollywood lawyers are often seen defending alleged-criminals in court rooms, Tae-soo’s position is so corporate, it barely seems lawyer-ish at all. His first big assignment is essentially to be a business manager. One of the firm’s corporate clients has bought a struggling zoo, and Tae-soo is essentially sent in to save it.

It is from here that the film takes on its quirks. The zoo has sold most of its animals (save for meerkats, a racoon, and a mentally-ill polar bear that can’t be displayed). Caught between his careerist-focus on impressing his boss, and a non-careerist amicability, Tae-soo convinces the zoo’s mild mannered staff to take on an interesting scheme to save their business.

Secret Zoo is undoubtedly at its strongest when Tae-soo’s scheme is underway, and all kinds of physical comedy ensues. Messaging is also a key part of the film. A critique of zoos is worked in, even as the work is sympathetic to zookeepers.

More prominent, however, is the film’s cynical view of corporate culture. The critique works best if one asks questions about Tae-soo’s motives. The amorality of corporate law is made obvious from the film’s start, so why would someone like Tae-Soo get into it in the first place? The answer is that our society has contradictory values: on the one hand we promote standing up for the “little guy”: on the other hand we value career ascendancy in capitalist markets. This contradiction produces real-life Tae-soo’s: mild-mannered and thoughtful people who become mundanely-cutthroat in the context of their employment.

Secret Zoo doesn’t appear poised to make it to North American markets. Save for its theatrical and modest-budget-antics, the film doesn’t differ that much from American, mainstream feel good comedies. One of its subtle problems is how Tae-soo’s character arc is presented. When the realities of his corporate employment become apparent, Tae-soo is called out as if this is personally his fault. As a result, the film follows the emotional beat of a standard-young-man-learns-his-lesson comedy, rather than the young-man-challenges capitalism story that it could be. For me this was not just a shortcoming, but a point of emotional disconnection, as the story lost its unique voice. Perhaps you’ll feel the same way and won’t quite be happy with the film’s trajectory. But don’t let me be a downer. The “zoo” itself is absolutely worth the visit.

 

Silence (2016)

Directed by: Martin Scorsese 

Written by: Scorsese and Jay Cocks

Silence_(2016_film)Some iconic directors have an unmistakeable style. I don’t know if that’s true with Martin Scorsese. While Catholic identity has been a recurring theme in his work, that’s about all the common thread there is between 2016’s Silence and 2019’s The Irishman. The former film is set in the 1600s and opens to the Portuguese Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) being tortured by Japanese soldiers. The action cuts to two of Ferreira’s disciples, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver), as they convince their mission leader that Ferreira and the Japanese-mission project are worth saving.

Early on the movie appears to have some vivacity. Driver brings his unique, dweeby-tough-guy persona (combined with a faint Portuguese accent) to his divine role. Together, (his character) Garupe and Rodrigues appear to make for a surprisingly comedic duo, even as they grapple with dogmatic fears about Ferreira having potentially abandoned Christianity.

Unfortunately, this quirkiness seems to have been more of an accident than anything else. While fifty minutes shorter than The Irishman, Silence is the greater slog of the two due to its repetitiveness. The story goes through cycles of Rodrigues being idolized by Japanese Christians, and the Christians then being punished by Japanese officials. Garupe, meanwhile, is separated from Rodrigues, ending the film’s comic feel once and for all.

There is a point to Silence’s repetitiveness. The film is about the Christian belief that the faithful should accept torment in the name of their savior. As such, Scorsese and Cocks decided it was important to depict the duration of what Rodrigues went through. Perhaps we viewers are meant to think “as painful as it is for us to watch this, it must have been far more so to have lived it.” 

As far as entertainment goes, Silence seems like it was made for quite the narrow audience. Pope Francis supposedly likes the film, and that makes sense. Francis is a liberal by fundamentalist standards and Silence is film that calls for critical engagement with church doctrine. Its call is not meant to entertain, it would seem, but actually to teach those deeply imbued in the church. If you aren’t socially-conscious enough to be put off by Silence’s initial orientalist imagery, but are still enough of a free-thinker to open your mind alongside Rodrigues, then congratulations, this is the film for you.

There’s a lot I found frustrating about Silence. On the one hand, I wanted more Adam Driver. On the other hand, I don’t like the subtle-racism of the film’s (at least English-language) promoters, listing Driver as one of the film’s stars while ignoring Yosuke Kubozuka. Kubozuka plays Kichijiro, the film’s most memorable character: an insecure man who feels ashamed at having denounced Christianity in order to save his life. Kichijiro was perhaps the greatest reminder that this film was not meant for me (and other non-christians). In my eyes he was a victim, and should have served to teach Ferreira a lesson about the cruelty of Catholicism’s obsession with martyrdom. It seems, however, that the film was not written with such a sympathetic understanding of the character. According to the film’s Catholic-gaze, Kichijiro is a Judas figure who Ferreira must learn to forgive.

If you have the patience for tragic, period pieces, Silence may be worth your time. Otherwise, I’d caution you not to be drawn in by the identity of its co-writer/director. Silence is an important movie for liberal-but-pious Christians to watch, but the rest of us would probably be better off if Scorsese had at least cut the run time in half.

The King of Comedy (1982)

Directed by: Martin Scorsese 

Written by: Paul D. Zimmerman

KingofcomedyPerhaps you’ve heard of a movie called Joker? It was kind of a big deal this past year, and it also happened to polarize critics. But while much of the discourse around Joker was political, another observation made about it was how much it owed to Scorsese movies: Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy in particular.

The King of Comedy indeed bares key similarities to Joker. Both films feature Robert De Niro. Both works have unconventional protagonists. Both protagonists aspire to be comedians. And both see their journeys affected by their celebrity-comedian idols.

But while Joker only incorporates celebrity as an element of  its bigger representation of society, in The King of Comedy, celebrity is the central feature. The film tells the story of Rupert Pupkin (De Niro), as he attempts to advance his comedy career and befriend talkshow host Jerry Langford (played by comedy icon Jerry Lewis). Pupkin is at once a strange and familiar figure, reminiscent of the small time con artists one meets on streets, and the harmless eccentrics one meets at arts venues. Pupkin is manipulative and off-puttingly confident, character traits that enable his ambitions even as they limit his likability.

Rupert’s attempts to win over Jerry bridges into his relationships with other characters. Rupert has feelings for a bartender named Rita (Diahnne Abbot), and his arrogant drive for a comedy career is amplified by his accompanying push to seduce Rita with his comic prowess. Rupert also gets to know Masha (Sandra Bernhard) a fellow, atypical-Jerry-Langford-fan. While Masha isn’t quite as unique a character as Rupert, she is a key player in the film’s dramatic stakes, and half made me wonder whether Todd Phillips ever considered adapting her to be Harley Quinn for Joker.

When people negatively compared Joker to The King of Comedy, subtlety is undoubtedly one of their reasons for doing so. Joker is a blatantly political movie. The King by contrast, is harder to place. Its script does not call on audiences to sympathize with its twisted-protagonist, at least not to the same degree. The King has a wonderfully mysterious air to it, even if one has some sense of its direction.

Personally, I see no reason to pit Joker against King. The two cards may be drawn from the same deck, but they serve different functions. Joker’s political quality means it is concerned with teaching us where evil comes from. The King, meanwhile, is more psychological than political. Joker draws sympathy for his lead, because in multiple ways he is sympathetic. The King, by contrast, performs a psychological magic trick, constructing a character as initially offputting, before showing how he can win our sympathies through his vulnerability. 

The King is also notable in leaving its comedian-actor (Lewis), in a mild-mannered dramatic role, while trusting the actual comedy with De Niro and his comedically-under-accomplished character. Pupkin spends far more of his life being comedic, than does Langford. Could one argue that makes him the better comedian? If yes, then The King of Comedy undermines the myth of our society being meritocratic.

Joker’s comedian, Murray Franklin, is an embodiment of normalized mediocrity: his politics are bland, and his comedy can at times punch down. Jerry Langford, by contrast, really is a representative of comedy and celebrity. He lacks Murray’s negative traits, but even so, does he singularly deserve the fame that Rupert lacks? The uncomfortable magic trick of Paul Zimmerman’s script, is that it seduces King viewers towards rooting against Jerry, nearly as hard as Joker viewers root against Murray. Rupert Pupkin may be a schmuck, but so long as we’re part of the 99%, then ain’t we all?