The King Of Comedy (1982)
Cert: PG / 109 mins / Dir. Martin Scorsese / Trailer
Well, another previously unseen classic, another pleasant surprise. Actually, pleasant may not be the right word, but it’s true that I enjoyed The King Of Comedy very much, so it’s close enough. Martin Scorsese’s character-driven film is a rumination on celebrity, fandom and paranoid delusion; a satire so starkly abrupt that there are barely any wry grins, let alone laughs (comedy films are meant to be funny of course, but films about comedy rarely are. Which is how it should be*1).
Robert De Niro’s portrayal of Rupert Pupkin, super-fan of TV talk-show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) and self-professed stand-up comedian, is slightly more delicate than the film makes allowances for. His character-work is nothing short of magnificent, whether it’s in Rupert’s daily life with his distantly hollering mother, his fantasy world where he’s Jerry’s colleague and confidante, or the squirm-inducing car crash between the two where Rupert and fellow obsessive Masha (Sandra Bernhard) kidnap Jerry so that Pupkin can ransom his hackneyed comedy routine onto national television.
What’s most intriguing (thanks to screenwriter Paul Zimmerman, even more than the acting or direction) is that Pupkin can’t even keep control of his delusions, and it’s not long before the wheels are falling off his idyllic vision of contentment, too. Far from being a Mitty-esque hero, Rupert Pupkin can’t succeed within his own psyche, so it’s quite a horrifying turn of events when he does in the real-world; and that success says more about the society which somehow allows it to happen.
My only real grumble about the film is that Rupert's ongoing fantasy-strand doesn’t seem to be utilised enough. Although the alternative-narrative progresses as the film does, Scorsese dips in and out of it rather than running it as a fully parallel reality (which is basically how I envisioned it going). It would have been nice if the audience arrive at a point where they’re no longer sure what’s really happening and what isn’t yet are still wrapped up in all of the events on-screen, much like Pupkin himself. As it goes, the final act of the film (as bizarre as it is) concentrates on the ‘real world’ consequences of Pupkin’s actions, and is far neater for it.
Timeless for all the wrong (although right) reasons, The King Of Comedy probably says more about the fame of 2015 than it does of 1982…
Well no, I'm still not entirely sold on De Niro (see here).
I certainly am.
I would, but not for casual viewing.
Robert De Niro starred in Jackie Brown of course, opposite Sam 'Windu' Jackson.
*1 Because comedy (especially stand-up) requires more restraint, timing and precision than any other type of acting; you can’t blag it and hope that it works on some level, because if it fails to make the audience laugh then it fails in its primary purpose, and if the audience can see you trying, you’ve already got it wrong. This is touched on very briefly by The King Of Comedy then not mentioned again. It’s not until the climax of the film that we see Pupkin in full comedic-flow, and I can’t tell if his stand-up is deliberately as clichéd and dull as it is (to me). While it’s accepted that stand-up is an art-form created in America, I believe it’s evolved past the particular brand seen in the film, yet that’s still a brand that’s very much used today, especially with mainstream comics. You can only hear a joke for the first time once, and while repetition certainly has its place in comedy, standing in front of a curtain (or, God forbid, a faux-brick wall in a black-box theatre) cracking mother-in-law jokes isn’t self-aware enough to embrace the technique. Short version: I can’t work out if Pupkin’s actual stand-up is a bit crap because a) It was filmed over 30 years ago, b) It was meant to be a bit crap over 30 years ago, or c) I just don’t find that broad, drum-roll/cymbal, one-liner stuff funny any more.
But you didn’t come here for a lecture on comedy. Especially from someone who’s not a comedian.
But you got one anyway.
Look, what I’m saying is, if you got to the end of The King Of Comedy and watched Pupkin’s show-routine and thought ”Oh that’s better, some jokes! This bit’s great!”, then you’ve watched the film wrong.
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
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