The King of Comedy is one of those overlooked gems lurking in the depths of Scorsese’s brilliant filmography. Like many of those more obscure films, it has nothing to do with the mafia, but does peer into other interesting and dark themes. Specifically at hand here is modern celebrity culture and the price of fame. Teaming up with Robert De Niro for the fifth time, The King of Comedy is both pathetically sad and wickedly funny.
Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) is just about as insignificant a character as you’ll find anywhere. He is so insignificant that characters in the movie frequently get his name wrong, and can’t even be bothered to try and correct themselves. He’s a man in his late thirties, living in his mother’s basement, who wants to be the next “king of comedy,” and by the normal rules of show biz, he’s running out of time. He believes the best way to accomplish stardom is to star on a late night talk show hosted by Jerry Langford (a Johnny Carson like figure, played by Jerry Lewis), who he believes he has made friends with. When the polite way of asking fails, he and another crazed fan of Langford, Masha (Sandra Bernhard), kidnap him in order to get a spot on his show.
Frequently throughout the film, Rupert’s actual life is contrasted with his own version of reality. In his daydreams, he imagines himself as friends with Langford, and the more famous of the two. He also imagines marrying the girl he had a crush on in high school (Diahnne Abbott) on Langford’s show. These dreams are edited in so seamlessly with the rest of the film that their implausibility is the only clue we have to the fact that they are not taking place. Rupert has dialogue that refers to these events actually taking place, so it becomes clear that he is delusional at least on some level. The film is shot very realistically for the most part; though there are some scenes that are more expressive, I would say this is one of Scorsese’s most straightforward films in terms of how it’s shot.
The King of Comedy is actually very similar to Taxi Driver, though quite different in tone and subject. The De Niro characters in both movies are very similar, awkward and marginalized loners trying to get themselves noticed through violence. It’s somewhat strange that I ended up sympathizing with Travis Bickle a lot more than I did with Rupert Pupkin. Maybe it’s because Bickle tries to be normal for a while in the beginning, whereas Pupkin is always a bit off. Also The King of Comedy has more of an uncertain tone than Taxi Driver is. Taxi Driver is always a tragedy, but The King of Comedy is harder to classify. It toes the line between comedy and tragedy pretty awkwardly, as there are quite a few laughs in this movie, but they’re either mean spirited or pitiful.
The end of Taxi Driver touches upon the influence of mass media, but The King of Comedy deals with it during its entire run time. Langford is the main one cluing us into the desperation of the famous; at times he seems to regret that he is so well known. It only seems to bring him trouble and bodily harm in the case of Pupkin and Masha. Meanwhile, Pupkin is put on pedestal despite the wrong he’s done, just because he’s been on tv. Masha, who is just as criminal as he is, is never heard from again. It’s equally alarming to see how Rita (the girl that Rupert went to high school with), who seems pretty levelheaded and normal, puts up with Rupert, a man she has next to no interest in, just to meet Langford. Fame takes its toll in this movie, and what’s more concerning, is that the characters actively pursue it.
The King of Comedy is not a fun film to watch per se, but it is an illuminating one. I didn’t find it as disturbing as some reviewers seemed to, so make of that what you will. I found Scorsese’s change of direction interesting, though I must say I like the more expressive direction in some of his other films better. As is usual for his collaborations with Scorsese, De Niro turns in one of his finest performances here. For fans of Scorsese or De Niro, or especially both, this film is a must see. It’s definitely one of Scorsese’s better films, and gives one plenty to think about.
“Better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime.”
Long story short: 3.5/4 star
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