Watch this as soon as you can…
Joker has just had its premier in Venice, and critics are loving it. Many have compared it to a Scorsese masterpiece starring Robert De Niro (there are too many films that fit this description). The King of Comedy. It is a 1982 satirical black comedy that is often unfairly overshadowed by Scorsese’s other, much more famous work. To compare any film positively to The King of Comedy is high praise indeed.
Despite its title, this film is, rather ironically, not the funniest film you will ever see. Some of the jokes land. Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), who has been kidnapped by stan Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), is being forced to read off cue cards at gunpoint, in order to force the television network producers into letting Pupkin on the air. Some of them are upside down, and some of them are blank. This is mildly amusing, and you cannot help but chuckle at the error. Ironically, this film is at its funniest when Pupkin’s set is played in full for the viewer. After struggling to get work, you would expect it to be truly awful. It is some pretty solid stand up that is surprisingly funny. He is constantly restricted by a studio system refusing to give him a chance. Perhaps if they did, this entire situation could have been avoided. Other than isolated instances, however, this film is not laugh out loud funny.
It is much more of a satire, and a biting one at that; in its sights is how television has changed our sense of reality. Television creates situations where Pupkin, an extremely isolated individual, has managed to delude himself into thinking Jerry Langford, a comedy star, is his friend. Pupkin has a warped view of human relationships and cannot get the very clear hints that he is unwanted and not respected in the slightest. For Pupkin, the television is his reality. This is reflected by the impressive use of different filmmaking styles and editing. Scorsese often cuts to scenes “from the television”, filmed in the style of 70s chat shows, and edits them so that they are mixed with Pupkin’s fantasies and daydreams, which are then mixed with scenes taking place in our reality. By the end, you do not know what to believe. Does Pupkin’s stunt really earn him a film and book deal, or is it all in his head? You genuinely cannot tell, and that is the point.
Further, television has also created a corrosive culture of fame. Pupkin is convinced that he can only define himself as successful, and that all his problems will go away, once he becomes a star. Langford is an effective foil in the sense that he proves this is not the case. Langford is deeply unhappy with the constant harassment from crazy fans, and spends the final act of the film “tied up” and unable to do the job that put him in this situation. Minor characters and side plots are used effectively in this film to suggest Pupkin is not an isolated case. In a blink and you miss it moment, someone who looks exactly like Pupkin briefly walks up to Langford in the street. Pupkin is tailing Langford at this point, and does not recognise himself. This is a subtle moment of pure brilliance which only a Scorsese film can provide. Another fan, this time an older lady, walks up to Langford to shower him in praise, only to wish he dies when she does not get her own way. Of course, Pupkin is the most extreme case, for he ends up kidnapping Langford, but this film makes it clear it is a wider societal problem. This film is aiming a mirror at the culture of fame and celebrity worship, and it is lucid reflection. You will not like what you see.
This film is incredibly, and rewardingly, subtle in its satire. One of the greatest shots in the film opens with Pupkin in the centre, his back to us. He is facing a wall sized photograph of a studio audience. It looks like he is really standing in front of them at the beginning. The camera pulls backwards to reveal this is just a photograph on a wall, and that Pupkin is at the end of a long corridor, which creates the effect of boxing, framing, him in his own illusions. It suggests that Pupkin is trapped in his own delusions, or perhaps trapped inside the false reality of a television “box”. It is a subtle way to make a satirical point using only cinematography. Another example of subtlety comes much later in the film. Jerry, with a gun pointed at his head, is forced to call the producers of his show. He cannot get through to them because they believe it is a hoax call. Not only is this funny, but it goes to show how many deluded fans must call that office on a day to day basis, to the extent that the real Langford cannot get through. It is another subtle instance of reality and fantasy blurring. The satire is not obvious, and rewards the most attentive.
This film may not be a laugh out loud comedy, but it is a dark, fascinating, and very satirical look at our culture. The satire is subtle, and the points are made using clever techniques. (What else can one expect from a Scorsese film?) If Joker is even half as good as this underrated classic from Martin Scorsese, then we are in for something special.