Monday, September 24, 2012

The King of Comedy (1983)

Title: The King of Comedy (1983)

Director: Martin Scorcese

Cast: Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis, Sandra Bernhard


There are a couple of movies out there that are about desperate people looking to make it in the big time. They want to make it so bad that they are willing to go to the craziest lengths in order to achieve their goals. For example the film Airheads (1994) starring Adam Sandler, Brendan Frasier and Steve Buscemi (among a slew of other comedy greats) is a film about this rock group who wants to become famous so bad that they hijack a radio station in order to play their demo tape over the air. In many ways Airheads is the rock and roll version of the film I’ll be talking about today, Martin Scorcese’s The King of Comedy; a film about a pair of wannabe’s who suffer from celebrity worship. Basically, these two individuals (played by Robert De Niro and Sandra Bernhard) worship a comedian who’s the host a television variety show called The Jerry Langford Show. De Niro’s character Rupert Pupkin just wants his shot at doing his stand up comedy act on Jerry’s show, will he ever make it?  

Rupert waits for Jerry outside the television station, his plan is to harass Jerry about how much he worships him and about how much he wants to be like him. Pupkin is so obsessed with making it as the next ‘King of Comedy’ that one day, while the masses are being particularly savage outside the television station, Rupert takes the opportunity to slip into Jerry’s limousine with him in order to pitch his comedy act to Jerry. Jerry decides to give this desperate soul a chance, and listens to Ruperts plea for attention. Jerry gives him some advice about how to get started in the comedy world and then tells Rupert to call his production office, to set up some kind of a meeting. Of course, Jerry just wants to get this obviously crazy loon off his back when he tells him this, but little does Jerry know what a nasty chain of events he has just jumpstarted.

Normally, and specially in a Martin Scorcese picture Robert De Niro plays these ultra macho types, the epitome of a man. Sometimes, De Niro’s characters will border on being arrogant or chauvinist because of this. De Niro’s character in Scorcese’s New York, New York (1977) is a good example of this, on that film he plays Jimmy Doyle, the kind of man who doesn’t want a woman to usurp his place; the kind of man who tells a woman to “come here” and expects her to follow suit. And here’s where The King of Comedy is just a little different then your regular De Niro/ Scorcese collaboration; on this film De Niro plays a complete nerd; a guy who lives with his mother, practicing comedy routines in his basement. He wants to be a celebrity so bad, that he borders on insanity.  He has fake conversations with cardboard cut outs of his favorite celebrities, and so on. He takes things to annoying extremes. It thought it was so interesting seeing De Niro playing against type. This isn’t the De Niro we saw in Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976) or Raging Bull (1980). On this one De Niro is a mama’s boy who still hasn’t found independence. Another interesting aspect of the film is that Jerry Lewis, the famous comedian who plays Jerry Langford also plays against type. Lewis was always known for playing wacky, absent minded characters, but on The King of Comedy he plays the opposite; a weathered actor who carries himself in a decidedly serious manner.

The film basically plays out like a celebrity’s worst nightmare, not unlike Rob Reiner’s excellent Stephen King adaptation Misery (1990), only without the horror. Actually, this is one of the few Scorcese comedies, but of course, this being Scorcese it’s not just any comedy, it’s a dark comedy. Same as the film he did after The King of Comedy, After Hours (1985), yet another Scorcese dark comedy I highly recommend! The King of Comedy explores the dark world of celebrity obsession, those psychos that chase a celebrity, invade their homes or call them on their private telephones. Basically, this movie is about a pair of stalkers. These are people that want to skip the normal way of doing things; they don’t want to start at the bottom and work their way up. No, they want to skip straight to the big time. I thought the film does well in pin pointing the fact that to get to the top, you have to start at the bottom, and work your way up. The thing about this movie and it’s probably the main reason why it tanked at the box office, is that its main character is completely unlikable. Rupert Pupkin is a guy who is blind to reality, he is so persistent with his obsession that he becomes annoying, therein lays the comedy in this film, but I guess not a lot of people saw it that way. Audiences came to expect mean and gritty films from Scorcese and with this one they got this dark comedy with an unlikable protagonist, I think this is part of the reason why the film bombed.

De Niro, Bernhard and Scorcese discussing a scene

Entertainment Tonight declared The King of Comedy “the flop of the year” on national television. But I say that no matter what its box office returns where like, this is not a bad film; in the least. Many of Scorcese’s films have tanked at the box office only to later be admired and revered, same has happened to Ridley Scott and Francis Ford Coppola with many of their own films. A lot of films simply fail to connect with their audiences, or are simply ahead of their time, as I suspect was the case with this one. In my book, this is yet another misunderstood and underrated Scorcese picture. Ask anyone about their favorite Scorcese film, and chances are this one isn’t going to pop up. But take it from me my friends, it is good. Yeah, it’s a different kind of collaboration between these two greats, but at the end of the day, I think that’s what makes this film unique, it’s not what you’d normally expect from them. In the film, Pumpkin says that he’d rather be “King for a day, then a schmuck your whole life” and in this way, long before reality television reared its ugly head, this film foreshadowed what reality television was going to be like; where people will do anything for those ever popular 15 minutes of fame.

Rating: 4 out of 5


Unknown said...

You write:

"long before reality television reared its ugly head, this film foreshadowed what reality television was going to be like; where people will do anything for those ever popular 15 minutes of fame."

This is so true and I think what makes the film even more relevant now than it ever was. Great performances from everyone in this film. I also thought Sandra Bernhardt nailed it as De Niro's equally crazy cohort (girlfriend?). The scenes she has alone with Jerry Lewis are hilariously creepy and it is great to see her just go for it in this role, playing such a vivid wackjob.

I also like the film's ending which doesn't go the way you think it will and maybe even suggests that everything was taking place in Rupert's mind?

Franco Macabro said...

Sandra Bernhardt usually plays completely whacked out characters, her face seems to work well for them, I understand that most of those scenes that take place with her and Jerry alone were improvised, a technique that Scorcese loves to use.

I also thought that the last scene was happening in his mind, but then again, who knows, maybe he did achieve his dreams after all, its ambiguous that way.

Interesting tid bit of inof: Jerry Lewis had suggested a different ending in which Rupert actually kills Jerry, but it was rejected!

Gustavo Z. said...

"Ask anyone about their favorite Scorcese film, and chances are this one isn’t going to pop up" it's funny because it happened to me. this is one of the few movies i own that, when i bought the dvd, i did so without knowing anything about it (no review or review or recommendation, just pure instinct). of course i would have never bought it if it wasnt because the classics scorcese/deniro movies i had already had in my collection at the time (MS, TD, RB, GF, CF, C). i was taken away by deniro's performance and how far away was he from the movies aforementioned. what i loved about his character was his expressions, his movements, the way he was seen walking in a light blue tux in broad nyc daylight.

"and maybe even suggests that everything was taking place in Rupert's mind?" i have seen this film over 5 times and i've never thought of this before and it does make sense. i guess i always wanted to believe his happy ending

btw, i have not seen after hours yet, thanks for the recommendation.

Franco Macabro said...

I'd heard about it, but it wasn't after seeing After Hours (and enjoyed it so much) that I gained more interest for Scorsese's comedies, he is actually quite good at them, they always have a cynical dark side to them I enjoy.

Yeah, the ending being a dream makes sense because Rupert is having dreams all through out the movie, he is always thinking he is going to be successful, for all we know, the ending is what's going on in his mind as he is in jail. Or it could all be truly happening, thats the beauty of that ending, it's very ambiguous, kind of like the ending for Total Recall, where we don't know if the whole film was a dream or not.

I'll be lending you After Hours soon, I think you'll end up loving it.


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