Monday, April 28, 2014
The King of Comedy
That brings us to Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), the main character of Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy (1982) With his tacky suits, hair, and mustache, Rupert, an aspiring standup comic, looks very silly indeed. He's also quite delusional and obsessive, a jovial cross between Travis Bickle and Bill Dauterive. Sometimes, his earnest but wrong-headed tactics are funny in a socially awkward way. Other times, his actions are sad, a desperate plea from a wounded soul for some recognition. But then are times when his behavior is quite clearly dangerous, to himself and others. Regardless, he's not someone whose attention you want.
More than anything else, Rupert wants to appear on the hit late night show of his idol, Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). He even has a mockup of the show set up in his basement, where he fantasizes about being a guest of honor; meanwhile, his never-seen mother yells at him to keep it down. When given the run-around by various people at Jerry's office and finally rejected by Jerry himself, Rupert, along with another crazy fan (Sandra Bernhard), hatches a scheme to kidnap Jerry and force his way on the show.
At the other end of the spectrum is Jerry, quite clearly modeled after Johnny Carson. He's sharp, funny, and charming, at least on his show. Away from the show, walking from his apartment to the studio, he is badgered, tired, frustrated, and private. Everywhere he goes in public, people hound him, calling out his name as if he should know them personally and insulted when he doesn't acquiesce to their every demand. One lady tells him she hopes he gets cancer after he tells he's running late and doesn't have time to stop and talk on the pay phone with her nephew. Worst of all, he's got to put up with people like Rupert who expect him to be the friend who will advance their career. Like Rupert, he is fairly isolated, but while Rupert's isolation is in the cramped, dark basement, Jerry is often show alone in the city streets, framed often as one person against the backdrop of buildings and crowds. If Rupert is a hidden nobody, Jerry is an exposed icon, constantly exposed to scrutiny.
At various times, The King of Comedy is funny. At other times, it's tense. Sometimes, it's both. It's a very peculiar balance, and it can be a little unsettling. When Jerry is kidnapped for example, that's serious business; Rupert has committed a very serious crime, and he forces his idol to read cards over the phone outlining his plans for the show's producers, but the seriousness is undercut because Rupert keeps fumbling with the cards, holding them upside down, or showing a blank one by mistake. Other times, Scorsese gets laughs from hilarious reaction shots to Rupert's antics, particularly from Jerry, who has one of the best I-am-not-amused expressions ever, and a secretary at Jerry's office who recognizes rather quickly Rupert is not someone who should be hanging around.
Life can be cruel. Life can be funny. Life can be depressing. The King of Comedy recognizes it can be all of those things, sometimes all at once. Buoyed by some great performances, the movie is an underrated classic from Scorsese.