Monday, April 28, 2014

The King of Comedy

Sometimes, when watching a desperate, pathetic person try and fail, you don't know whether to laugh, cry, or be afraid.

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.

The King of Comedy shows both ends of the success spectrum in show business. On one end, there's Rupert who, to put it bluntly, is a loser. He lives with mother (although a certain joke during his monologue at the end will make you wonder about that) and dreams about making it to the big time. We see him in his basement acting out his fantasies, and Scorsese crosscuts between the razzle dazzle glamor and accolades of what Rupert believes he'll get and the mundane reality that he is interacting with cardboard cutouts of Liza Minnelli in dark, gloomy basement.  Until he can get to the real thing, Rupert will have to make do with pretend.

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.

Fantasy versus reality is a big theme of the movie. Rupert is someone who clearly can't tell the difference, and at times, even the viewer can't tell. After his first meeting with Jerry, Rupert, blissfully unaware Jerry has brushed him off, thinks he's on his way to the top and reunites with Rita (Diahnne Abbot), a woman from his past. He goes on about how he's friends with the great Jerry Langford, and to prove it, he'll take her to Jerry's place for the weekend. Later, we see them going on a train there, and at first, I thought this was another fantasy sequence. But then, they arrive, and it becomes quite clear awkwardness is about to occur. And like Taxi Driver, the movie seems to end with Rupert getting all the fame and adoration he so long desired, but it's impossible to say whether that's the case or if it's just another fantasy.

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.

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