The King of Comedy Review
The King of Comedy was made at a traumatic time in the film-making life of Martin Scorsese. For years he’d been making masterpiece after masterpiece - his four films proceeding this being, in order, Taxi Driver, New York New York, The Last Waltz and, best of all, Raging Bull - all to intense critical acclaim but complete box office apathy. Naturally it was this latter point that concerned the studios – who gives a damn if Raging Bull is a work of brilliance if no one’s going to pay for it? – Scorsese, quite rightly, began to fear they would refuse to fund any more of his pictures. This would have been devastating for him – as a close friend of his observed, “There was nothing in his life besides movies. What would he do?” In King he decided to channel some of his worry and concern into a tale debating the nature of fame and whether it really is all it’s cracked up to be.
In many ways, the film was well ahead of its time. In its central character, Rupert Pupkin (Robert de Niro), we have the archetypal no-hoper that nowadays populate so many reality TV shows, someone desperate for fame and fortune but with absolutely no talent whatsoever. In Pupkin’s case, he longs to be, in his own words, the new “King of Comedy”, and has fixated on the Jerry Langford Show, a fictional version of America’s famous Tonight Show, as his way to do it. He fantasises about encounters between him and Langford (played by Jerry Lewis), in which Langford is stunned by his genius, his natural ability and charisma. In his mind he has an incredible future as host of the show, adored by millions and envied by the man he looks up to and admires above all else, Langford himself. His reality is not so great – working in a deadend job and living at home with his mother, his only acquaintances seeming to be the others who hang around the stage door of the television studio where Langford records his show.
Pupkin’s descent into his fantasy life lie at the core of the film. He is every person who has ever dreamed of making it big, but whereas most know that it will never happen, and that is at most a wistful dream, here he has made it his whole life. He acts out conversations with Langford in his head, conversations in which Langford begs him to take over the show, or is in awe of his talents. Sometimes he uses lifesize cut outs of Langford when he’s chatting, and sometimes he stands in front of a huge photo of a cheering crowd, imaging the applause and kudos that he is getting. Fame as the reason for being extends to all areas of his life, even using it to impress a potential girl friend when he shows her his autograph collection. Fame is everything to him, and it does not even occur to him that his material is anything but side-splitting stuff.
What the film so accurately portrays is that the fantasy of what life is like for famous people is often completely removed from the reality. Langford is not the amusing, cheerful host he presents to the nation every night at eleven, but rather a bitter lonely man, living in a small apartment weekdays and on weekends a house “like a funeral parlour” according to one character, who despises the people who worship him and wants nothing more than to be left alone. Witness his discomfort during the scene where he walks down the street with people calling out to him or asking for autographs. He is tense and nervous, and gets away with the bare minimum of acknowledging the people, signing an autograph but refusing to talk to someone on the phone, walking quickly to get his journey over with as soon as possible. Adding in the fact that he has to contend with obsessive fans like Pupkin and Masha (Sandra Bernhadt), a girl who’ll jump into his limousine or chase him down the street just to be able to touch him and who regularly calls him at his apartment, and it’s not surprising that, for this comedian, his job is anything but funny.
And that’s the great irony of this film. For those that haven’t made it, all they see are the bright lights and the glamour and the adulation that comes from being a famous person. For those that have, sometimes the burden can become too much, and the cons can outweigh the pros. It can be argued that perhaps this is a bit of an indulgent conceit, that the lifestyle afforded to these people must surely more than compensate for any difficulties they might have, and it is true that the film does not present an entirely balanced argument to this point. However, no matter how much money you have, if you have the level of loathing that Jerry has, you would wonder whether you should have taken a more low-key, if lesser paid, job.
When it was first announced that Jerry Lewis had been cast as Langford there were many who felt, quite understandably, that it was a piece of stunt casting. However Lewis rises to the challenge magnificently and gives a performance so completely different from his usual persona that he is all but unrecognisable. He infuses Langford with the right mix of weariness, disappointment and, in the last half of the film, resentful incredulity that the events that are happening to him are. We never lose sight for one second of the complete contempt he holds for these people, even when he’s strapped to a chair covered from head to toe in sellotape, and the only disappointment is that he is not given more scope to expand the character. Here is a guy that obviously contains within him a mass of seething derision but only once are we allowed to see him break loose, the savage moment when he strikes Masha. It is a great performance and is one of the best examples of a comedian breaking into a dramatic role. He is also the perfect foil for Pupkin, who de Niro plays with twitchy energy, never staying still for a moment, always adjusting his tie or moving in excitement. The opposite of Lewis’ still, controlled performance, de Niro is both fully immersed in his character and, at the same time, never completely realistic but rather a convincing caricature – you don't lose sight of the fact that this is de Niro demonstrating some of his method acting skills rather than a naturalistic free persona. Having said that, it is a highly enjoyable performance, and is a good illustration of just how versatile an actor de Niro is – compare his character here with one of the gangsters or violent men he is more associated with. Of the other players, only Sandra Bernhadt makes an impression as the stalker Masha, although it would be nice to see what made her the way she is.
The main problem is that the script is never quite three dimensional enough to be totally convincing. Anything not related directly to the plot falls by the wayside, and we get to see precious little of these characters’ other sides – we never see Pupkin at work, for example, or learn about Langford’s background and how he has ended up in this job that he seems to hate. Although Pupkin does live in his dream world and as such has no interest in external things, the movie itself doesn’t have to be that way, and it’s a tiny bit of a shame. One of the reasons we aren’t allowed a glimpse into Pupkin’s psyche is that the film leads to a climax where all is revealed, and why that climax is certainly extremely satisfactory, it does restrict the exposition in ninety percent of the film. It also falls uneasily between two stools in regards to whether it is a comedy or a drama. There are moments that almost descend into farce – the scene of Pupkin running from security in the TV building, for example, or the cue card jokes – but nestled next to this ultimately rather sad tale it jars slightly, and while the moments themselves do work and are funny, the audience is not comfortable enough to really chuckle with them. Much better are the skilfully subtle scenes showing Pupkin’s fantasies, that are perhaps, ironically, the most convincing of the entire film – his imagined dialogues with Langford ring true and will make you both wince and smile at the same time.
The screenplay’s finest moment, though, comes at the climax. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that the ultimate success of the film rests on Pupkin’s material and whether he is actually as bad as we believe he must be. The script is structured so that throughout we are teased, given momentary glimpses of what his material is actually like, before being torn away by a cut to something else. It is a brave screenwriter who sets himself up for such a task as this – it’s one thing to be able to write bad jokes, it’s quite another to be able to write believably bad jokes, jokes that you can actually see that this character would be deluded enough to think amusing. Paul Zimmerman rises to the task magnificently, providing Pupkin with a monologue so bad and yet so convincing that it makes your toes curl and your eyes wince with embarrassment. What makes it worse is that with de Niro’s performance you see Pupkin revelling in the situation, finally totally immersed in his fantasy world, seeing before him not a stony-faced studio audience but the thousands of cheering fans from his bedroom wall made flesh, believing that here at last the world is seeing him, and falling in love with him. And, as mentioned, not only does the dialogue convince on this level, but it also provides all the unanswered questions we’ve had about this character from the moment he jumped into Jerry’s car – how did he get like this? What was his background that made him the sad pathetic figure he is today? And just how does he really feel behind his self-imposed artifice of sunny optimism and never-ending faith in himself and his ability to succeed? It is, in short, an incredible moment, and elevates the film to the level of Scorsese’s greats.
I wish I could say the same for the resolution which is slightly disappointing, albeit all too predictable. For those that haven’t seen the film I won’t say how it all works out but I will comment that for a film that is so much about the unobtainable-fantasy life of so many celebrity watchers, Pupkin’s fate is rather unsatisfactory and a little unbelieveable. The fantasy should stay just that, a fantasy – as I’ve said above one of the points the film wants to hammer home is the idea that the fantasy of fame and the reality are two totally different things, but Pupkin’s future seems to belie that, and as such sits rather uneasily with what has gone before. A crowd pleaser of an ending (ironic, really, considering how few crowds came to see the film on release), the only solace I get from it is that perhaps we are witnessing not what happened, but another sequence inside Pupkin’s head.
Scorsese always regretted making The King of Comedy, saying that he’d done it as a favour for de Niro. During its shooting and editing he came close to having a nervous breakdown, partly due to the incredible pressure he felt, partly because his marriage was collapsing. It didn’t help matters when the film was released to complete disinterest – Entertainment Tonight even called it “The Flop of the Year.” Fortunately for cinema Scorsese, although obviously downhearted, continued to press forward, first with After Hours then The Last Temptation of Christ before hitting the big time again with Goodfellas. Nowadays King is highly regarded by those in the know and generally forgotten by everyone else, which is a shame, as it is in some ways more relevant now than ever. There is much to recommend it and, although it is a little uneven in tone, is well worth a visit.
Functional design, with static menus and subtitles across both the main film and documentary (although not for the missing scenes).
Not a bad transfer really, although there is a softness to the picture that belies its age. The blacks are also not always clearly defined, with not enough definition between them in the darker scenes. Overall, though, perfectly acceptable.
Only a 2.0 Mono track, but one that does its job fine, if unspectacularly. There isn't the clarity you get with more modern films and you're not going to be blown away with it, but it does the job.
A Shot at the Top: The Making of The King of Comedy - This twenty minute documentary about the film features observations made by Scorsese and Sandra Bernhardt, revealing the level of improvisation that went into on the film. I could listen to Scorsese talking all day and he’s good value here as always, but Bernhardt isn’t that useful. Although it's understandable that de Niro didn’t get involved, it would have been nice to have some words from Lewis.
Deleted Scenes - Two scenes, the first being a very short clip of Langford meeting more fans. The second is more interesting, being the complete version of the opening of Langford's show. Although the jokes aren't the most amusing in the world, it is here that Lewis shines through and shows some of the charisma that has made him famous. A very nice scene to have.
Theatrical Trailer - A simple trailer that nevertheless gets across the gist of what the film is about, as well as underlining the fact it's another Scorsese/de Niro collaboration. Picture quality as ever is not as good as the main feature.
Canadian TV Spot - Very brief but surprisingly illuminating trailer which gives away quite a bit of how the film progresses.
Stills Gallery - I'm not a big fan of stills galleries and this doesn't change my opinion. There are some shots of Scorsese directing but aside from that it mainly features the actors in various scenes. It would have been nice to have seen some more background detail, stepping behind the fourth wall, but there it is. Also, a couple of the 33 pictures seem awfully similar making this for completists only.
The King of Comedy will never make a list of Scorsese's best films, but it is still a class above most other similar titles. Worth watching for Jerry Lewis' performance alone, the film is complemented here with an average set of extras . There's some nice stuff here but there could have been so much more - the documentary is frustrating in that we hear how much Scorsese has to say, and yet we don't get a commentary. However, overall the film is well worth a look with two excellent central performances.