By Jennifer Heaton
People like to say that original movies are in short supply these days, swallowed up by the onslaught of comic book films, remakes/reboots, and live-action adaptations of 80s cartoons based on toys. Whilst there is truth to this observation, its conclusions are flawed. Not only have some incredibly bold and unique recent films come from pre-existing IP like “The Lego Movie”, “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”, but so-called “original” films are often just as guilty of recycling and retrofitting the concepts of the past.
Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright have made their entire careers out of essentially crafting extended tributes to their childhood favourites, communicating their own perspectives and ideas through the lens of pulp genre cinema.
This brings us to Martin Scorsese, who not only has his latest epic “The Irishman” on the horizon, but two films currently in cinemas that owe more than a little to his legendary filmography. In one corner we have “Hustlers”, a poppy and mischievous crime drama centred on strippers fleecing Wall Street schmucks in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
“”Joker” from its conception pitched itself as a love letter to Scorsese flicks from the late 1970s and early 1980s, specifically “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy”; director Todd Phillips even courted the man himself to give his blessing to the project.”
In the other lies “Joker“, a gritty new origin story for Batman’s greatest villain that reimagines him as an unstable wannabe comedian coming to terms with his psyche in the midst of societal depravity. By most metrics, these two films couldn’t be any more different, but what aligns them is their obvious reverence for the works of Scorsese. With that said, their methods of homage take a different approach.
Joker from its conception pitched itself as a love letter to Scorsese flicks from the late 1970s and early 1980s, specifically “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy”; director Todd Phillips even courted the man himself to give his blessing to the project.
From “Taxi Driver”, “Joker” borrows the corrupt and crime-ridden depiction of New York on the brink of collapse for its Gotham, an upcoming election as a backdrop, the acquiring and sudden use of a gun as a crucial plot, and of course both films feature a disturbed and socially inept protagonist disillusioned by their wellbeing and surroundings.
“If the homage wasn’t obvious, “Joker” even features Robert de Niro as Murray Franklin, the aforementioned host inspired by Jerry Lewis’ role as Jerry Langford in “The King of Comedy”
From “King of Comedy”, both protagonists share a desire to be a comedian despite their lack of skills, both films feature a late-night talk show host as a key supporting character, and both film’s climaxes with the protagonist hijacking said talk show for their own gain. If the homage wasn’t obvious, Joker even features Robert de Niro as Murray Franklin, the aforementioned host inspired by Jerry Lewis’ role as Jerry Langford in “The King of Comedy”.
Meanwhile, “Hustlers’” writer-director Lorene Scafaria borrows from Scorsese’s crime epics such as “Goodfellas”, “Casino” and “The Wolf of Wall Street”. However, the comparisons are more based on structure and technical execution rather than plot and themes. Right from its opening long take following Destiny through the strip club, there’s an obvious comparison to be made between it and several similar shots in the film to the classic oner following Henry Hill through the back of the Copacabana.
“Scafaria’s film views the crime genre through a female lens and uses its distinct voice to tell a story about sisterhood and capitalism, shining a light on sex workers in a rare sympathetic light.”
There’s comparable use of post-mortem narration in both Scafaria’s and Scorsese’s films, both similarly use dark comedy to relieve tension, and both utilize similar narrative arcs of their protagonist being lured into a life of crime until things go too far and are forced to quit for self-preservation.
If the preceding analysis hasn’t already made it clear, the big difference between “Hustlers” and “Joker” is that one uses references as a backbone to new ideas, whilst the other has constructed itself almost entirely out of references. Though the tonal and stylistic similarities will be apparent to cinephiles watching “Hustlers”, its subject matter, themes and perspective are wholly unique.
Scafaria’s film views the crime genre through a female lens and uses its distinct voice to tell a story about sisterhood and capitalism, shining a light on sex workers in a rare sympathetic light and demonstrating how the financial crash hugely affected the poor and marginalised.
When you look at the themes of “Joker”, it does undeniably have something to say about mental health and the dilapidated state of mid 20th century New York, but its musings are just slight variations on what Scorsese already said about those topics forty years ago. Arthur Fleck is a mere amalgamation of Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin with clown make-up on, and the film seems to think just combining those characters is enough of a statement.
“Cinema history has proven you can borrow or even rip-off ideas from your idols, but the goal is usually to say something new with the inspired material”
In many ways, the film may have actually had more of an impact had it taken place in modern times instead of tying itself to the era of Scorsese’s heyday. Not only would its commentary on the nature of celebrity, the stigmatisation of mental health issues and the downfall of politically-incorrect comedy (something only Phillips and his ilk seem to think is a serious problem) make more sense in a contemporary setting, it would have made what it has to say resonate more.
In its current form, “Joker”’s adoption of the Scorsese aesthetic seems as contrived a move to make itself seem more “serious” to Academy voters as its decision to tie itself to Batman to grab mainstream attention.
“The big difference between “Hustlers” and “Joker” is that one uses references as a backbone to new ideas, whilst the other has constructed itself almost entirely out of references”
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery as the saying goes, but that’s all Joker ultimately is a flattering piece of fan fiction dedicated to Martin Scorsese. Cinema history has proven you can borrow or even rip-off ideas from your idols, but the goal is usually to say something new with the inspired material. Tarantino, Wright and Scafaria understand this unwritten rule and make their tributes as much about themselves as they do about their role models, but Phillips doesn’t quite seem to have grasped that; whether that’s down to ignorance, cynicism or ego we’ll never quite know.