Retro Review: The King of Comedy

Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Paul D. Zimmerman
Composer: Robbie Robertson (Uncredited)
Starring: Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis, Tony Randall, Diahnne Abbott, Sandra Bernhard

Following Raging Bull, Martin Scorsese underwent a total career revitalization. Suddenly he went from a has-been to the A-list of Hollywood with yet another Oscar-winning masterpiece under his belt. Once again, Robert De Niro started pushing Scorsese on yet another collaboration project given their previous incredible success. Once again Scorsese relented but in doing so it would give way to one of the most emotionally demanding films of his career: The King of Comedy

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: A man is held at gun point.

Language/Crude Humor: Some language including g**d**** and b*******.

Sexual Content: Partial female nudity, talking about sex, nothing depicted.

Other Negative Content: Themes of delusion and unpunished crimes.

Positive Content: Negative satirical depiction of crime/noted themes.

Review:

The King of Comedy is not one of the more popular films Scorsese has directed. Part of that has to do with the fact that the initial run bombed royally, wasn’t appreciated by critics, and hasn’t been given the kind of massive second chance that many great missed films have been. Still, it has its defenders and many of them are quite prominent.

Former Chicago Reader film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote “I was slow to appreciate this masterpiece, which I now regard as Martin Scorsese’s best feature, and I credit Wim Wenders for convincing me that there was far more going on in this movie than I was initially prepared to see.” Similarly, Roger Ebert has called it a movie that’s disturbing, frustrating, but one that opens up on multiple viewings. The King of Comedy is not, you may already have guessed, a fun movie. It is also not a bad movie. It is frustrating to watch, unpleasant to remember, and, in its own way, quite effective.” Maybe the movie’s most prominent fan is Todd Phillips, the director of The Joker who has gone on record saying that his newest DC film (produced by Scorsese nonetheless) borrowed heavily from The King of Comedy

On its surface, the movie doesn’t quite have the panache and overt stylistic flourishes of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. It’s shot more traditionally in color for one. It lacks the menacing atmosphere, confidence, style, and grandiloquence that defines Scorsese’s masterpieces up to this point. For a dark comedy, the ratio of dark content to funny content is fairly lopsided in favor of the darkness which makes the film feel overbearing and bleak at times. 

What really holds the film together is its script, which is arguably one of the tightest in Scorsese’s filmography. The story follows a conceited wannabe comedian named Rupert Pupkin who hitches a ride one night with a late night TV host named Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). During the ride, Pupkin tries to convince the star to give him a chance to prove himself yet gets mostly brushed off by the host whose well used to talentless fans attempting to make a name for themselves.

Subsequently, Pupkin begins a series of escalating attempts to reestablish contact with Langford in order to get a shot on his TV show so that he can have a chance to make a name for himself. Pupkin repeatedly fails to pickup that Langford wants nothing to do with him and ultimately gets to the point where he’s forced to kidnap Langford and hold him ransom in exchange for a TV appearance. 

Maybe no scenes exemplify the themes like the ones of Pupkin attempting to practice at home, making fake recordings of himself on TV, and having practice conversations only to be interrupted by his mother down the hall telling him to quiet down. These scenes really highlight the divide between reality as it is and reality as how Pupkin sees it in which he’s a talented, well-connected comedian. If Taxi Driver is about loneliness while Raging Bull is about anger, then The King of Comedy is a movie about delusion.

Robert De Niro fills the character of Rupert Pupkin with one of his most idiosyncratic performances in his career. The previous two films required a character with a certain intensity and unwieldiness to them but here he’s playing a variation on those characters from a completely different angle. He’s a dweeb. Pupkin is absolutely pathetic and pitiful to the point where he’d be extremely annoying as a human being if De Niro didn’t make us pity him. He finds an incredible space in the performance where this character makes us feel heartbroken for him. All while we watch him continually fail, make a fool of himself, and ultimately kidnap a celebrity to appease his delusional hopes and dreams.

It all leads up to a painful yet genuinely funny standup routine where he pours his heart out with some of the darkest jokes I’ve ever heard in standup comedy. It’s as though when he speaks the veil comes crashing down and you see the real Pupkin as the tortured soul who is doing everything in his power for one chance at fame. At the same time however, it’s couched in a legimately funny monologue that looks and sounds like one you’d hear on a late night show. It’s this tension between comedy and the horrible truth that defines the movie’s themes and why it’s not one of the more “fun” Scorsese films to watch. 

For Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese, The King of Comedy represented a massive emotional undertaking to the point where they ultimately decided to temporarily part ways following the movie. They’d been like close brothers for years and the depths of darkness that had to be drudged up to make the film work were taxing. Additionally, King of Comedy’s poor critical and financial performance incentivized them moving on temporarily to other projects. They wouldn’t team again for seven more years until Goodfellas in 1990.

King of Comedy as of yet hasn’t developed a massive cultural reputation outside of the cult status that many of Scorsese’s less familiar works generally accrue. Despite being the spiritual successor to two of the greatest movies ever made, it really only maintains a small audience of vociferous critics. As time goes on and Scorsese’s films gain a greater reputation, The King of Comedy may eventually gain its status as a great movie. 

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The Bottom Line

 

Tyler Hummel

Tyler Hummel is a Nashville-based freelance journalist, a College Fix Fellow, and a member of the Music City Film Critics Association. He has contributed to Geeks Under Grace, The Living Church, North American Anglican, Baptist News Global, The Tennessee Register, Angelus News, The Dispatch, Voeglin View, Hollywood in Toto, Law and Liberty, The Federalist, Main Street Nashville, Leaders Media, and the Catholic Herald of Milwaukee.

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