Movie Review: The King of Comedy (1982)

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Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy may not be very funny, but it’s definitely filled with jokes. The director and actor Robert De Niro as impotent boob Rupert Pupkin spray seltzer all over the audience with their tale of the underdog you can’t stand, delivering a movie that’s never particularly funny nor scary, but all together engrossing. The King of Comedy looks at the sad clown objectively, and the results aren’t pretty.

Rupert Pupkin has a dream—well, aside from an extensive collection of autographs, a dream is all he has. A standup comedian by his word only, Pupkin tries every which way to sell himself as a comic without doing his act. But after years of studying the beats, rhythms, and styles of his favorite comedian, late-night talk show host (and the film’s Johnny Carson stand in) Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), Pupkin’s ready to take center stage. By this, of course, I mean stalk and kidnap Jerry Langford and hold him ransom for a 10-minute spot on his show.

The King of Comedy is not your typical De Niro/Scorsese outing—hell, it’s not really your typical anybody outing. The film is bizarre, subversive, satirical, funny, sad, scary, and strangely moving, i.e. not the most comfortable film to watch.  Scorsese tends to undercut the things that make the film engaging. Pupkin is sympathetic but annoying. The film is dark but has a happy ending (if you believe in this sort of thing). The script is funny, but the film isn’t shot for comedy. The cinematography is stoic, but the editing is tense. Scorsese creates a world of contradictions, one that clues us into how Pupkin sees the world.

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Like Pupkin, The King of Comedy blends fantasy and reality in a way that confuses and startles onlookers.  Scorsese and De Niro play fantasy for reality and cuts from one to other seamlessly, interrupting each sequence long enough for Rupert to scream “Ma, puh-lease!” But like the viewer, Pupkin is unsure whether he is dreaming or living, confusing his fantasies for realities as his co-stars watch in horror.

Both the actor and director take on their own personas for the film, trampling over what audiences expect from them. Scorsese, the generally visceral director, plants his camera in the ground and leaves it there. Like the TV shows Pupkin obsesses over, Scorsese finds the best spot to deliver the information and waits for his actor to give the goods. Comedy lives in the wide shot, drama in the closeup, but here Scorsese reverses it. Many of Pupkin’s funniest moments come from De Niro’s expressions, while many of the film’s saddest moments appear when Scorsese pulls back to show the world watching or ignoring Pupkin. This twist keeps the audience on their toes and makes Pupkin a far more pitiful, even sympathetic figure.

De Niro’s transformation takes a giant leap in the other direction, especially from his previous Scorsese’s roles Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta, and Mean Street‘s joker Johnny Boy. The King of Comedy shows De Niro as Willy Loman, a man name is barely worth remembering. He lives in his mom’s basement, dreaming an impossible dream with a wall for an audience and cardboard cutout of Liza Manelli—if there was ever an early warning sign of mental distress. He’s unassuming, unsure, and sad.

The King of Comedy remains such a surefooted experiment in style and expectation that every viewing of the film reveals new sides and interpretations. It’s direction so different and performances so convincing, The King of Comedy may defy its title and audience, but does so in the best way possible.

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  1. I have never seen this, and now I’m wondering what’s taking me so long!

    • You do need to see it! Stop reading this reply and get over to your local Blockbuster and see this movie today!

      (Thanks for reading, though!)

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