Joker ★★★★

Watching Taxi Driver again, a couple of nights after watching Joker, I noticed something I don’t think I’d paid attention to before, something that hadn’t ever been important: a few lines from one of the other drivers in the all-night diner about midgets being funny. Did Todd Phillips pick that up and make it a Joker plot point? His Joker is almost an essay about Taxi Driver, its effect and afterlife, its reputation and its seductions, its status as a museum of 70s attitudes and New York as its seediest, its unusual place on the border between fiction and real-life violence. Taxi Driver famously inspired a would-be assassin (John Hinckley Jr) as well as being inspired by one (Arthur Bremer). Phillips is clearly aiming to place his film in a transgressive tradition of young male alienation cult films – see also: Fight Club, A Clockwork Orange – and like Zack Snyder’s Watchmen a decade ago, his Joker is nostalgic for the 70s/early 80s New York of garbage strikes and porn cinemas, rundown apartments and tough cops. It slums in a precise recreation of that New York of Taxi Driver, slightly time-shifted to about 1981, while borrowing the showbiz delusions of The King of Comedy – and the star of both movies is of course in a significant support part. I kept waiting for Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck to tell us that loneliness has followed him everywhere, his whole life – that he’s God’s lonely comedian. The Scorsese debts are so obvious they put Joker closer to a remake than a homage, although Phillips doesn’t know what to do with the racism that would have been much more overt in the era the film recreates. In other words, there are inevitable complications in using a period film to comment on and springboard into the very different politics of right now. On the other hand, there’s something fascinating and impressive about sneaking a big budget riff on the 70s exploitation film into multiplexes disguised as a superhero origin story – and if all the kids turning out in droves for Joker want to see Phoenix do the vigilante act again, only in something much tougher and darker, and beefy not thin but still saddled with a mother, they can watch You Were Never Really Here.