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Criticwire Classic of the Week: Martin Scorsese’s ‘The King of Comedy’

Criticwire Classic of the Week: Martin Scorsese's 'The King of Comedy'

Every now and then on the Criticwire Network an older film gets singled out for attention. This is Criticwire Classic of the Week.

“The King of Comedy”
Dir: Martin Scorsese
Criticwire Average: —

A wannabe comedian obsessed with stardom, 34-year-old Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) spends his time gathering autographs and catching glimpses of the rich and famous. He longs for his big break so he can join the world of celebrities, and he believes his best chance is to be a guest on “The Jerry Langford Show,” hosted by successful comedian and talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). One night, Pupkin saves Langford from a mob of obsessed fans, including Masha (Sandra Bernhard), a stalker who maneuvered her way into Jerry’s limo, and shares a ride home with him. Attempting to brush off Pupkin, Langford tells him to call his office and they’ll get in touch with him about listening to his act. Day after day, Pupkin waits outside his office, eventually getting a tape into the hands of Langford’s staff, but after he continues to loiter in the building and stalk Langford, he’s eventually kicked out by security. Pupkin even travels to Langford’s home with his date Rita (Diahnne Abbott), an old classmate from high school who now works in a bar, to Langford’s home in order to impress her, and they’re both personally rebuffed by Langford. It’s then Pupkin and Masha hatch a kidnapping scheme to abduct Langford and demand that Pupkin be featured on “The Jerry Langford Show” in exchange for Langford’s safety.

Though it may appear from that description to be a serious depiction of instability and delusion, Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy” is a comedy, albeit a dark one, for no other reason than it’s filmed like one. Scorsese eschews his dynamic, visceral style established in films like “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver” for a more static approach, preferring to observe and linger on Pupkin as he imagines intimate conversations between him and Langford, performs his monologues in front of a fake backdrop, and especially when he’s rejected personally to his face. Scorsese, De Niro, screenwriter and former Newsweek film critic Paul D. Zimmerman, and longtime collaborator and editor Thelma Schoonmaker are all working within the Comedy of Discomfort, using every tool at their disposal to make the audience uncomfortable by Pupkin’s delusional antics. The scenes at Langford’s office with Pupkin refusing to take a hint feel painfully long because they’re supposed to, but the brilliance of “The King of Comedy” lies in that discomfort and embarrassment. It’s a film about wanting something so badly, you’ll go to absurd and insane lengths to get it, even if you don’t understand the thing you want at all.

Scorsese goes to great lengths to blur the line between fantasy and reality in “The King of Comedy” so as to enter Pupkin’s headspace. After Langford leaves Pupkin outside of his apartment, Scorsese makes a hard cut to the two of them at lunch with Langford begging Pupkin to take over his show for six weeks. He cuts back and forth between this imagined lunch and Pupkin reenacting the lunch alone in his house to demonstrate how much Pupkin’s life exists in imagined terms, but by doing this, he creates an unsettling tone that endures for the rest of the film. There’s an edge to certain scenes that make them feel fantastical even though they’re real, such as when Rita and Pupkin spend time in Langford’s house, giving them a sense of unpredictability and even danger. Scorsese’s unmoving camera keeps us perpetually discomfited even when we’re laughing and especially when we’re unsure if what’s happening is invention or truth.

Coming only three years after Mark David Chapman assassinated John Lennon, and two years after John Hinckley took a shot at President Reagan to impress Jodie Foster, “The King of Comedy’s” depiction of delusional spectators obsessed with fame was boldly topical, even though Zimmerman wrote the script in the mid-70s and De Niro brought it to Scorsese in 1974 (the year they made “Taxi Driver”). But if its allusions to the real world were felt then, they’re even stronger now in the age of reality television and crazed stalkers. Though there’s an innocence to Pupkin and Masha’s desires, wanting a spot on TV and eating dinner with Langford respectively, and the two of them are bumbling kidnappers, their actions feel even more disturbing now than they must have felt thirty years ago. But it’s the actors that undercut the implicated terror of the scenario. In his most deliberately off-putting role in his entire career, De Niro plays Pupkin straight and highlights his inherently pathetic nature, whining to his mother about interrupting his fantasies and annoying everyone he meets with his desperation. Bernhard plays Masha with a manic unpredictability, but also communicates her unbridled sadness at indulging in a love that will remain unrequited. But it’s Lewis who keeps the whole ship afloat. Dialing down his traditional schtick to zero, Lewis plays the straight man opposite De Niro and Bernhard, adopting a glazed, world-weary approach to everything he encounters, as if being hounded, cursed at, and even kidnapped by fans is just the unfortunate price you pay for fame. In fact, it’s Lewis’ delivery and expressions that garner the biggest laughs. It’s far and away the subtlest performance of his career, and arguably one of his best.

“The King of Comedy” was Scorsese’s small, raw New York picture that could be shot quickly and filmed under budget following the intense and punishing “Raging Bull.” Unfortunately, neither critics nor the audiences were enamored with the film, disliking its painful, creepy nature. It bombed at the box office, making only $2.5 million on a $19 million budget, but over time, the film has become considered among Scorsese’s best works. It’s another one of his films that refuses to give his audience the satisfaction of justice, as Pupkin is never punished for his actions, but is in fact rewarded with everything he wants: He goes on TV, performs his monologue, proves to Rita he’s worth something, and becomes famous. By the end of the film, Pupkin has a memoir out, and has been released from jail after almost three years on a six year stint. The last shot in the film is a push-in on Pupkin on stage as the sound of cheering and laughter overtakes the mix. It’s unclear whether or not this is a fantasy or reality, but it’s beside the point only because it’s real to Pupkin. This is exactly what he wanted to happen even if it didn’t happen, which is the ultimate joke in the whole movie. As Pupkin says, “It’s better to be king for a night, then schmuck for a lifetime!”

More thoughts from the web:

Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S.

I was slow to appreciate this masterpiece, which I now regard as Martin Scorsese’s best feature, and I credit Wim Wenders for convincing me that there was far more going on in this movie than I was initially prepared to see. Perhaps the key to this creepy fable about the American obsession with celebrity and media comes in the climactic comic monologue of Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), brimming with self-hatred and shame about his family and his nondescript suburban/ethnic background, which in a way all of the preceding film prepares us for. The script by Paul D. Zimmerman, a onetime film critic at Newsweek, manages to be both non-specific and spot-on about everything that separates the haves from the have-nots -– a subject Scorsese seems to know like the back of his hand, and one made all the more complex by the fact that it’s often hard to separate the privileged from the deprived in this film (a fact spelled out by another troubling climax, the confrontation between Jerry Lewis and Sandra Bernhard). Interestingly enough, this seems to qualify as a collective expression (such as, for instance, Gilda) rather than an auteurist testament. It was apparently De Niro’s fascination with the script and his character that brought the film into being more than Scorsese’s own engagement with the material, and Lewis’s contributions to his own part may be just as telling. With Diahnne Abbott (the real-life Mrs. De Niro) in what may be her best role. Read more.

Vincent Canby, The New York Times

It would be difficult to describe Martin Scorsese’s fine new film, “The King of Comedy, as an absolute joy. It’s very funny, and it ends on a high note that was, for me, both a total surprise and completely satisfying. Yet it’s also bristly, sometimes manic to the edge of lunacy and, along the way, terrifying. It’s not an absolute joy by a long shot but, in the way of a film that uses all of its talents to their fullest, it’s exhilarating…One of the ways in which “The King of Comedy” works so effectively is in the viewer’s uncertainty whether it’s going to wind up as terrifyingly as is always possible. It’s full of laughs, but under all of the comic situations is the awful suspicion that our laughter is going to be turned against us, like a gun. Read more.

Mike D’Angelo, The A.V. Club

Released in 1983, “The King Of Comedy” marked the fifth collaboration between Martin Scorsese and De Niro, and was arguably the most unconventional film either of them had yet made at that time. Both divested themselves of their most familiar tools: De Niro, usually a seething husk of raw masculinity (he’d won the Oscar for “Raging Bull” just three years earlier), transformed himself into the very definition of pathetic. While Scorsese, renowned for his aggressively mobile camera, shot “The King Of Comedy” using the flat, locked-down impersonality of the era’s TV programming. Lewis, meanwhile, happily satirized his own public image, making Langford at once a testy, condescending prick and the helpless target of an endless stream of celebrity-crazed interlopers. All of these elements, plus Bernhard’s sheer unpredictability, combined to make the film (written by Paul D. Zimmerman) a bold, productively off-putting, and genuinely prescient look at the way adulation and its promise can warp us. The film ends with a coda that was widely interpreted as fantasy at the time; seen today, the same sequence of events looks entirely credible. Read more.

Matt Singer, The Dissolve

If “The King Of Comedy” doesn’t make us laugh that hard, maybe that’s because, like so many Scorsese movies, the ultimate joke is on the audience. In “Taxi Driver,” De Niro’s Travis Bickle, a sexually frustrated, sociopathic hack, snaps and goes on a killing spree — and becomes a folk hero (both in the movie and in real life, to would-be assassins like John Hinckley Jr.). In “Goodfellas,” Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill spends a lifetime robbing and hurting people, and feels absolutely no remorse about any of it. He only turns himself in because he fears his friends are going to whack him. For the millions he took and squandered, he’s “punished” with a quiet life in suburbia. In “The Wolf Of Wall Street,” unscrupulous stock trader Jordan Belfort gets busted for his crimes — but, as he proudly boasts in his voiceover narration, getting busted doesn’t stop him from being rich, and after a slap on the wrist, he’s back to giving motivational seminars to people who lap up his every word. “The Wolf Of Wall Street” ends with a shot of Belfort’s audience looking up in rapt attention. “The King Of Comedy” ends with that shot’s inverse: Rupert Pupkin, freshly released from prison and back onstage, soaking in the adulation of his fans. As the audience cheers and applauds, the camera slowly zooms in on De Niro, who’s dressed in bright red suit and bowtie, like Satan’s personal stand-up comic. In Scorsese’s “nine-ball movies,” he presents villains who are mistaken for heroes, who repeatedly fail upward and still come out on top. Scorsese never lets these characters off the hook. His audience does. Read more.

Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader

Martin Scorsese’s 1983 movie about an aspiring comic (Robert De Niro) who kidnaps a talk-show host (Jerry Lewis) is clearly an extension of “Taxi Driver” — both in its themes of obsession and its ambiguous stylistic mixture of fantasy and reality (it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins — my feeling is that the entire last half of the film takes place in the De Niro character’s mind). But the shift in archetypes from Catholic to Jewish, plus the visual shift from extravagant expressionism to flat, overlit TV images, radically alters the point of view; you feel for the first time that Scorsese is trying to distance himself from his characters — that he finds them grotesque. The uncenteredness of the film is irritating, though it’s irritating in an ambitious, risk-taking way. You’d better see for yourself. Read more.

Roger Ebert, RogerEbert.com

“The King of Comedy” is not, you may already have guessed, a fun movie. It is also not a bad movie. It is frustrating to watch, unpleasant to remember, and, in its own way, quite effective. It represents an enormous departure for Scorsese, whose movies teemed with life until he filmed this emotional desert, and whose camera used to prowl restlessly until he nailed it down this time. Scorsese and De Niro are the most creative, productive director/actor team in the movies right now, and the fact that they feel the freedom to make such an odd, stimulating, unsatisfyng movie is good news, I guess. But “The King of Comedy” is the kind of film that makes you want to go and see a Scorsese movie. Read more.

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