Movie Review: The King of Comedy

“Better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime.”

-Rupert Pupkin
Comedy. That word doesn’t often come to mind when thinking of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. But after seeing “The King of Comedy,” the next time you think of De Niro or Scorsese, the word comedy will never quite feel the same again.
“The King of Comedy,” like almost every other Scorsese movie, takes place in New York City. Rupert Pupkin (De Niro) is a loser beyond even the typical standard of a Scorsese movie loser. Pupkin is in his late 20s and still lives with his mother. He might not even have a job, but he certainly has ambition. Pupkin idolizes comedian Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), who has his own late night talk show.
Pupkin dreams of being just like Langford, to a creepy, obsessive point. He begins to stalk Langford, in hopes that Langford will listen to one tape of his stand up material and feature him on his show. Langford ignores him, and Pupkin won’t take any of it. I don’t want to reveal how exactly Rupert finally gets Jerry to let him on the show, but lets just say, as the movie puts it, he got a little “tied up.” You’ll see.
I might not want to call “The King of Comedy” a comedy. It’s more about comedy than an actual comedy itself. Nevertheless, the movie is filled of many humorous moments. It could best be defined as a dark comedy, a very dark comedy. It’s the kind of dark comedy that might make a film by Todd Solondz or the Coen Brothers movie look more like an Adam Sandler comedy.
The humor sometimes lies in funny dialogue, but it mainly lies in the directing and editing. Scorsese, who usually uses these things to make his movies as dark as possible, has found a way to use them to make his movie as funny as possible. Editor Thelma Schoonmaker does a particularly great job tricking the audience, especially in one scene which involves a seemingly real exchange between Langdon and Pupkin. We cut to reality to find it’s all in Pupkin’s imagination and now he’s reciting everything he’d say in that particular situation. We get a great laugh out of the scene but in it filmmaker has succeeded in tricking the audience and filmmaker now has the audience under his control. By this point, the movie could go anywhere and you wouldn’t be able to predict it.
This movie is a Scorsese movie. Even if it’s a comedy, you’ll see Scorsese from the very first frame. In fact, Pupkin is not to different from most other Scorsese characters. I saw him as a less thuggish Johnny Boy and a slightly more obsessive Travis Bickle. Pupkin remains more like Bickle though, very much an outsider to society who seems to have no problem showing his insecurities yet somehow makes himself out to be a human being who is more important than anybody else on the planet.
As usual, De Niro gives an amazing performance, proving that it is possible for one guy to portray a wife beater, a murderous gangster, and a standup comic all in one career. But De Niro is no ordinary actor, he is one of the great method actors of all time. I don’t know what he did to prepare for this role, but whatever deep character study he did certainly worked. As with every character he has ever played, De Niro truly embodies Pupkin and everything about him. No matter how pathetic he is, you almost feel bad for the guy and don’t want to laugh at him; maybe with him.
Providing another great performance is the legendary Jerry Lewis. Lewis isn’t his normal, crazed comic self. His performance as Langford carries much restraint. It is almost more of a straight man performance, yet that straight man performance somehow manages to be endearingly funny. Lewis’s performance reminded me something of the funny straight man Jason Bateman embodied as Michael Bluth in “Arrested Development.” It’s the kind of character that is funny not because he is trying to make you laugh, but because he has such a feeling of superiority above everyone else that he almost takes himself way too seriously in such ridiculous situations.
In the end, despite being something of a comedy, “The King of Comedy” becomes a dark meditation on modern society on the same level as “Taxi Driver.” Like “Taxi Driver,” it is, in an ironic way, mocking the people society turns into heroes by praising them at the same time. It shows someone’s rise to fame and then asks, “how could someone like this ever become so famous?”
The simple answer is a mocking look at modern day celebrity worship, a tale that still holds up almost 30 years later. The likes of Paris Hilton could learn something from this cautionary tale of both the people who become famous just for the attention and those who obsessively follow celebrities like they are gods when, in reality, they are no more human than you or I.
I once saw Scorsese as something of a God amongst directors, but despite his great talents, he is human too.
Overall, “The King of Comedy” is one giant self-reflexive punch line that wraps around itself in a punchline in its final moments. And the joke’s on you.
Recommended For Fans Of: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, GoodFellas, Dog Day Afternoon, Mean Streets, Fargo, Reservoir Dogs, Network