Martin Scorsese’s The King Of Comedy is unlike any film he’s made before, and he will not deviate again till 2011’s Hugo. It is a fractured film with fractured characters, living close to the edge of sanity in a world that idolises and worships celebrities. It is made all the more effective today because its theme still rings true; movie stars are overrated.
I say The King Of Comedy is unlike any of Scorsese’s other pictures because it doesn’t have the luxury of laughing at itself for being so dark and sickly. Sure, it’s classified as a black comedy, and some bits of it are genuinely funny, but the story it tells is not only depressing, it is also filmed in a depressing manner. Much of it takes place at night, where the colours are muted and the shadows are heavy. There’s even a throwback to Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon — the hall of a large New York townhouse is lit with nothing but candlelight (or at least it appears to be).
The performances are strong in this film. Usually strong performances are good because they glorify the actors. In The King Of Comedy, the performances do the opposite. They bring the characters down to their most basic level and exploit their weaknesses. We have Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) — “Everyone misspells it” — a geeky man who believes his delusion that he is a powerful stand-up comic. He spends most of the movie trying to earn a spot on TV, just to deliver a monologue that he’s been preparing for what could’ve been a lifetime. His idol is a TV comedian by the name of Jerry Langford (real life TV comedian Jerry Lewis), who runs his own show and, according to this movie, has many high profile guests.
They meet at the start, in Jerry’s limousine, and Rupert immediately thinks he’s got the famed host in his pocket. Rupert wants Jerry to give him a shot; Jerry wants Rupert out of his car. He promises to watch Rupert’s routine, and Rupert leaves the night glowing with pride. And then Scorsese does an interesting thing: He cuts to a lunch between Jerry and Rupert. Suddenly Rupert’s a famous comedian. The lunch is intercut with Rupert in his basement, rehearsing the same conversation that’s happening simultaneously at the restaurant. Have we jumped forward in time? Have we drifted to a parallel dimension?
Slowly, as the movie progresses, we begin to realise that Rupert lives in a fantasy. He is convinced that Jerry is his friend, and that Jerry will put him on the show. He visits the office and is chased away. He visits again and is escorted out by security. A third time, he’s threatened with a lawsuit. Then he drops by Jerry’s country home for the weekend, uninvited, and he’s thrown out by Jerry himself. He decides enough is enough; he kidnaps Jerry and makes his demands in one of the movie’s funniest scenes.
Still, The King Of Comedy is a painful picture. Rupert is a painful man. De Niro, usually so lean and tough in parts like Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta, retreats behind his moustache and glittery suits. He knows nothing of the ways of the world. It is a fine performance, encouraged by Lewis and Sandra Bernhard (Rupert’s psychotic stalker friend, Masha, equally obsessed with Jerry), who stand strong and hold their scenes with gusto. The candlelit scene I mentioned earlier contains some inspired moments of comedy and tension between Jerry and Masha, and the payoff is hysterical.
This isn’t a happy tale. In fact, at times it is quite frustrating. Surely no one could be as brazen and oblivious as Rupert. How much does he have to endure before he takes the hint? And yet there are people like him out there, who believe they have what it takes because their idols have it. “You have to start at the bottom”, Jerry explains to him. “I know! That’s where I am now. At the bottom”.
The movie’s final scene is an enigma, much like the final scene of Scorsese’s earlier picture, Taxi Driver. A couple of scenes before, Rupert boasts that his monologue has finally made it to air. How and why, I’ll leave up to you to find out. But the movie could have ended there and it would have instigated enough questions to keep the viewers busy. Scorsese adds the last scene as a tease. Think back to Taxi Driver. The idea is the same. Hero, or villain?
Best Moment | The entire kidnapping scene, including the bit where Rupert makes his demands. Hilarious.
Worst Moment | Nope.