Contains spoilers of Taxi Driver, The King of comedy and *clears throat* Joker.
I have assumed that you have either seen Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy or you have no interest in seeing those.
For beginners- Both Taxi Driver and The King of comedy are Martin Scorsese directorials written by Paul Schrader and Paul Zimmerman
The King of Comedy is about Rupert Pupkin, a struggling comedian who desperately craves to break into the comedy scene. He aspires to become the king of comedy, which he blazons himself to be. Rupert is an ardent fan of Jerry Langford, the numero Uno late-night talk show host of ‘The Jerry Langford Show’. It is Rupert’s dream to perform on Jerry’s show. He is obsessed with it even though we, as the audience feel it is will-o’-the-wisp. Throughout the film, we see him being disregarded, ignored and dismissed. He is a broken person who lives in a fantasy, which he hankers to turn into reality some day. There is a brilliant sequence in which he actually lives it out, we know that it is a fantasy. But to Rupert, it’s not. What I loved about this person is his ability to not give a damn about anything. All that matters to the funny man is to make people laugh. And how does he do that? Just by sharing all the terrible things he has experienced over the course of his life. That’s because his tragedy is actually a comedy to others and Rupert knows this. And when he ultimately performs, his act is all about his tragic and traumatizing life experiences, and this leaves the audience in splits. Unequivocal proof that one’s tragedy is a comedy to others. The message is explicit. And Rupert Popkin finally achieves this. He becomes The King of Comedy. Remember this.
7 years priors, in 1976, Taxi Driver intimately followed Travis Bickle, who is, you know, a taxi driver, suffering from insomnia. Travis is infatuated to Betsy, whom he thinks is not as cold and inhumane as the rest of the world. After meeting her, he subsequently asks her out for a movie, to which she consents. Lucky Travis, right? Almost but no. Travis takes her to watch a porn movie, terribly offending and making her leave in disgust. Failing to persuade her to give him one more chance, Travis confronts her and declares she is cold, just like everyone out there. The society befalls down further in his eyes when he sees a young girl, Iris, being forced into prostitution. Very nonchalantly, he skids into insanity and plans to assassinate the presidential candidate, whose office Betsy works for. And what happens in the end, really doesn’t matter to our conversation.
Now, what if Rupert Pumpkin had not become the King of comedy? What if he remained the uncared soul that he has been throughout his life, for the rest of his days? Would the failure and loneliness drive him insane like it did to Travis?
With Joker, Todd Phillips(director & writer) and Scott Silver(Writer) study these possibilities through Arthur Fleck.
Gazing at the parallels, Arthur, who has spent his entire life in Gotham City, works as a clown and is looking forward to building a career as a standup comedian. His mother, Penny, is the only one whose life would have an impact if Arthur dies. Rest of the world wouldn’t spend a second to look back, Arthur and I are on the same page on this one. Penny calls her son ‘happy’, literally. One thing which the man is clearly not. Arthur’s world is frantic, despairing, depressing, and is completely hopeless. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. The very first time we see him is when he is putting on paint and is pulling his lips apart to make him smile. Putting on a happy face, literally, as a tear rolls down his eye. As he gets to work and starts dancing to entertain people on the street, not one of them actually spares a glance. Moreover, he is picked by a gang of guys and is beaten down in an ally. He is broke and lying on the ground when the title ‘JOKER’ appears. That is what he is, a broken man.
Arthur has mental issues, or he is told so, and so are we. However, I strongly feel his transformation into Joker is not completely attributed to his Mental illness. Partially? Y
Mqybe. Completely? Absolutely no. Arthur quits his medications early on in the film, but we see him trying to cope up with people and situations. Call back to a scene where he meets Thomas Wayne and tries to talk to him. When the conversation diverts to money, he angrily questions Wayne, why is he and everyone in the world like this? Just like Travis! This scene seemed strikingly similar to Travis’s confrontation with Betsy, which ends with Tom forcing Travis out of the office. What appeared to be Arthur being kicked out of the theatre, in the teaser of Joker, was missing from the final film. Thomas Wayne might have got Arthur tossed out. Who knows? Todd Phillips does. This was a major trigger to both Travis and Arthur to choose the path they did.
Can I say that Rupert Popcorn was suffering from delusional psychosis, like Arthur? Because Arthur illusions life with Sophie and Rupert does the same. Rupert’s delusions are grander. One is less explicit than the other, but it is what it is. Having seen The King of Comedy after Joker, it bugged me whether the ending is real or another one of Rupert Pipkin’s episodes. You can call it the Joker effect. Or, is it Rupert that is affecting Arthur?
Arthur too finally realizes that his life which appears to be a tragedy is indeed, a comedy. Even his act has him recall personal moments from his childhood. But sadly, the reactions from the audience is contrasting to what Rupert received. It is moments like this, spread over 2 hours that makes him the supervillain. It doesn’t happen in one instance. That is what makes Joker special.
I felt Arthur’s pain. Maybe because I have been and at times feel alone. I have dreams, and I do imagine myself living in those. We all have been alone at some point or other, right? We all have dreams, don’t we? And all of us want them to come true. Does that make us, the dreamers, Rupert Pupkin?
To conclude, I want Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy and Joker existing in each of the universes the movies are set in, so Travis, Rupert, and Arthur could watch each others’ films and learn from them. I guess Arthur would have learnt a couple of lessons on comedy from Rupert in addition to the spirit of not giving up. That would be interesting considering how Travis and Rupert would react to watching their look-alike on screen. (For beginners: Robert De Niro played Travis and Rupert in Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy respectively. In addition, he played Murray Franklin, a late-night talk show host)
Before I end, I have to appreciate how amazing Joaquin Phoenix was. His performance felt soo authentic that I was sad for Phoenix as much I was for Fleck. It was only after I saw a couple of his interviews post-release, gave me relief watching him smile and talk to people casually.
Watch director Todd Phillips break down the opening scene: