In the entirety of director Martin Scorsese’s diverse filmography few of his pictures stand out quite like “The King of Comedy”. It’s a tough movie to grasp with its peculiar tone and unbridled cynicism. It’s a movie filled with undesirable characters and we are left with practically no emotional connection to any of them. Yet, despite all of these apparent issues and conflicts, I found myself glued to this offbeat bit of satire.
So I said ‘undesirable’ but for the film’s main character Rupert Pupkin that may be a tad harsh. Despite being delusional, obsessive, and a bit creepy there is a sympathetic quality to Pupkin. Similar to Scorsese’s Travis Bickle from “Taxi Driver”, Rupert is an outsider desperately wanting on the inside. Both are sad and pathetic eccentrics who refuse to be creatures of circumstance. They have pride and aspirations – misguided but genuine. Slowly both men mentally unravel and the question becomes how far will they go?
Both characters are played by Robert De Niro (at the time this was his fifth collaboration with Scorsese). Yet while similar in some areas, Rupert Pupkin has a uniqueness all his own. He doesn’t want power or to win the heart of a special lady. He simply wants to be a famous standup comic. He dupes his way into seeing late night talk show host and comedian Jerry Langford (played by Jerry Lewis) in hopes that it will lead to his big break. Rupert is given the old ‘contact my office’ brush off which he optimistically buys. Of course we know better.
A big chunk of the movie focuses on Rupert’s attempts to meet with Jerry. Some of the film’s best scenes take place in the lobby of Jerry’s office. Scorsese brings us back there several times as a persistent (and delusional) Rupert is repeatedly turned away by the receptionist and by Jerry’s secretary Cathy (played by a very good Shelley Hack). Each visit is a little kookier and slightly more uncomfortable than the previous one.
With each rejection Rupert becomes more unhinged and even more impulsive. Desperate, he seeks the help of fellow deranged stalker Masha (Sandra Bernhard). The two hatch an idiotic but well thought-out plan to satisfy both of their unique Jerry Langford obsessions. It’s here that the movie goes into some pretty weird directions but Scorsese keeps it all under control and unpredictable.
One thing that struck me is how the film keeps Rupert’s act hidden for most of its running time. His passion is unquestioned and his determination is limitless. But is he funny? Can he make people laugh? Scorsese eventually gets around to answering that question in a really fun way and it’s a perfect wrap up to this zany concoction.
When people talk about Martin Scorsese movies “The King of Comedy” often falls through the cracks. That’s a shame. It may not belong among the director’s best, but it certainly stands out for its uniqueness. It’s quirky, a bit bizarre actually, and that’s a big positive. DeNiro is a blast and offers up another example of why he and Scorsese are such a good team.
VERDICT – 4 STARS