Friday, April 9, 2010

Film Review - The King of Comedy

Film #39 of 2010 - The King of Comedy

Rupert Pupkin (Robert DeNiro) is an aspiring comedian who is the prototypical loser; underemployed, a grown man living in his Mom's basement, all of the usual sociological markers. He's also completely delusional and stalks Jerry Langford, (Jerry Lewis) a successful comedian and talk show host (a la Johnny Carson) in order to get a spot on his show to showcase his comedy bit. One night after a taping, when Jerry is mobbed by a crowd outside the stage door and attacked by another stalker, Masha (Sandra Bernhard) Rupert sees an opportunity to help Jerry into his waiting car, where he proceeds to talk his ear off for the short drive to Jerry's apartment building. When Jerry gives him a brush-off line of "Call my office" after Rupert asks him for a chance, Rupert predictably runs with it, assumes he and Jerry are now best friends, and thus begins a bizarre and somewhat dangerous sequence of events that fit the psychological mold, but end unpredictably.

The King of Comedy is brilliant, and also really uncomfortable to watch. DeNiro plays a character that is every bit as deranged as Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle, but is actually much more dangerous because though seemingly affable, nearly everything that comes out of Rupert's mouth has an undertone of thinly veiled hostility. I found myself unconsciously sinking lower and lower into my chair as the film progressed because he was subtly becoming more unhinged and scary with every scene. Unlike the obvious craziness of Bernhard's character, where she is outwardly out of control, Rupert's demeanor is much more menacing underneath his wide smile. Jerry Lewis, playing the "straight man" for once (that I know of) is actually quite good as well; under Scorsese's direction, he gives a really subtle portrayal of a guy who is outwardly on top of the world but actually lives a completely solitary existence, possibly of his own making. He and Rupert turn out to be not as far apart in their lives as one may assume, which lends a fantastically complex element to the film. Also, the film is psychologically fascinating because as we get to know Rupert better, we realize that he doesn't actually want to befriend Jerry, he wants to be Jerry, and in fact, better than Jerry, but without all of the work involved. What we find is that if you mix fame and notoriety, in the end, you'll ultimately succeed.

Scorsese does a great job with The King of Comedy, allowing his actors an obviously large amount of latitude for improvisation with their dialogue, and giving bright colors to a film that is truly very dark, which creates an even more unsettling feeling for the viewer. There are several fantasy scenes scattered throughout the film that are so seamless that it takes one or two of them to realize that they are indeed in Rupert's head, mainly because as the film progresses, the more ridiculous the scenarios become. Scorsese utilizes some really great stark imagery in a couple of scenes of the film that are a wonderful contrast to the vibrancy of the rest of the film. In particular, there is a moment in Rupert's basement bedroom where, among life-sized cutouts of Jerry and Liza Minnelli, Rupert does some of his act in front of a wall-sized photograph of a laughing audience. It's an absolutely breathtaking shot.

The King of Comedy is indeed a comedy, but it's dark. There were several times that I laughed out loud, and many times when I squirmed in my seat, but this isn't a film that is going to get anyone down or ruin someones day. Rather, it is searing social commentary, particularly about the role of television and the fame -and infamy- it provides to those who either earn their fame through talent or through sheer outrageousness. Though Network addressed this 10 years prior, The King of Comedy picks up where it left off, and makes some pretty unholy predictions about the wave of reality television that would follow more than 15 years after it was released. As Rupert says, "Better to be a king for a night than a schmuck for a lifetime." If we haven't already seen people act this statement out ad nauseum on television, then you can surely turn on the television tonight and see this philosophy at work.

4 out of 5 stars

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