When I recently finished my rundown of Batman movies I had occasion to comment on how Joker (2019) wasn’t so much a comic-book movie as an attempt to remake Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982), a movie nearly forty years its senior. Despite being so much older, however, I said I found The King of Comedy to be far smarter, fresher, more observant, and original than Joker. This left me to wonder if such a response was the result of my now being a grumpy old man, stuck complaining about how they “don’t make ’em like they used to.”
As further evidence of my GOM syndrome I went on to mention how I thought Gone Girl (2014), another big hit and favoured “water-cooler” movie that tapped into a cultural moment, was inferior, as a movie, to such schlocky genre entries in the psycho-girlfriend canon as Play Misty for Me (1971) and Fatal Attraction (1987).
What made this stick out for me was the fact that I wasn’t picking on tired, junky retreads. Both Joker and Gone Girl were huge box-office hits. Joker won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and led the field at the 2019 Academy Awards with 11 nominations (Joaquin Phoenix winning for Best Actor). Gone Girl received good reviews, made many critics’ top-10 lists, and was also nominated for numerous awards.
But there’s more grumpiness. Around the same time as this I was watching the British-Irish police drama The Fall, which ran for three seasons starting in 2013 and stars Gillian Anderson as a detective tracking a serial killer (Jamie Dornan). I’d heard nothing but good things about The Fall, which isn’t surprising given that it has a rating of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and received “universal acclaim” according to the survey of reviews on Metacritic. But while I like Anderson and thought the show had a few good moments, I came away from The Fall thinking the story took some silly turns and played up its feminist credentials in a way that was really heavy-handed. I also wondered at how Jamie Dornan got such freakisly large calves, but that’s beside the point.
Watching The Fall made me want to go back and watch Prime Suspect, the police procedural starring Helen Mirren as DCI Jane Tennison. The first series of Prime Suspect, which aired in 1991, had Tennison trying to break through the glass ceiling in a decidedly sexist (I think even by the standards of the time) workplace while chasing after a serial killer. And again the experience I had was of what a falling off there has been. Prime Suspect, dealing with a very similar story, is much better in every department than The Fall, and is far stronger stuff for being more honest and direct in its treatment of difficult subject matter.
So, what was going on here? Is this all just further proof that the film and television business has run out of new ideas and can only try to remake better films and TV shows from twenty, thirty, or even forty years ago? I think that’s part of it, but it doesn’t explain why these remakes are so inferior to their precursors. In most cases they are more expensive and better produced. Technically they’re very well turned out. But Joker, Gone Girl, and The Fall just aren’t very interesting, at least to me. I’ve seen this stuff done before, and done better. Which is as good a definition of Grumpy Old Man syndrome as any. I guess it’s all part of the aging process.