I often find myself defending some of Martin Scorsese's more recent work, against critics and cinephiles who say that he has lost his touch. I always through up defenses such as his being older and evolving as a filmmaker, focusing on different themes and ideas. However, after my recent viewing of The King of Comedy, I am finding it harder to convince myself of the validity of such statements, particularly since the film is mind-blowingly brilliant without relying on the edgy, violent hipness that people have come to associate with Scorsese, who is perhaps New York's most prolific filmmaker. In its decidedly humorist approach, The King of Comedy does not reach the level of Taxi Driver, or Raging Bull, but it certainly does not profess to be such a film, in fact, it is decidedly aware of its fabricated nature and intends fully to deconstruct the very elements that make it so enjoyable. At no point is The King of Comedy pretentious or too self-invovled, which makes it astute observations on the cult of celebrity and societal ignorance concerning mental illness all the more prescient, even as the film now exists within a thirty year window. Furthermore, I am a huge fan of Robert De Niro, often defending him in the same breaths that I do Scorsese, and while I thought he worked some moment of magic into a rather phoned in performance in Silver Linings Playbook, it was a revelation to see the "typecast" performer exist in an acting spectrum that I had been entirely unaware of up until this point. I do not doubt that Robert De Niro has fun as an actor, you can see it on his face, especially in that little smirk he adds to even the most serious of roles, however, as Rupert Pupkin, De Niro is working on an entirely different level of intensity and absurdity that can only be described as mesmerizing, and it would be one thing if he were existing in this acting realm alone but his supporting cast, Jerry Lewis, in particular, manage to deliver equally amazing performances in what is slowly proving to be one of my new favorite Scorsese film. Hell, I would even be willing to say that watching The King of Comedy has led me to consider the very real possibility that Scorsese himself is "The King of American Cinema," a knowingly bold statement, but one that is certainly worth seriously considering.
The King of Comedy centers on the experiences of Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) a delusional man who believes himself to possess the necessary chops to be a stand-up comedian known and loved by the households of America, however, he has failed to be given the chance to show his skills to a national audiences. As such, Rupert believes that by befriending well-known late-night host, and former comedian, Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) he will be able to obtain such privileges. Unfortunately, Rupert appears to have no real understanding of the ways in which society works, believing that after a "chance" encounter with Jerry after a live-taping of his show that he will in some way befriend him to the point of simply being put on air. This believe leads him to create an elaborate lie about his friendship with the late-night host as a means to win the affections of a high school love interest named Rita Keane (Diahnne Abbot) who thinks there might just be validity to Rupert's statements. However, viewers are made well-aware of Rupert's delusions of grandeur, even depicting many of them within the narrative, often blurring beautifully between reality and the imagined. Nonetheless, after being denied access with Jerry in the studios, Rupert builds up enough audacity to simply take Rita and himself on a trip to Jerry's home, much to the confusion of Jerry's servants, and eventually Jerry himself. After being asked to leave, Rupert realizes that in order to find success on television he will have to resort to drastic measures and kidnap Jerry, a task that requires the help of his sometimes partner in crime, and fanatic of Jerry's, Masha (Sandra Bernhard). In a hilariously haphazard manner the two are able to take Jerry and kidnap him within his own home, at which point Rupert makes a rather simple ransom demand. He only desires to be allowed a monologue on Jerry's show in return for his safety, a request that is initially denied, but eventually embraced by the producers and law enforcement. Rupert is given his moment to shine, and shine he does, much to the adoration of everyone viewing, leading to a cult following, while he spends time in jail for kidnapping. The film closes with Rupert delivering a taped show of his comedy act, however, viewers are certainly left to consider whether this event actually occurs, or is yet another extension of Rupert's insane delusions.
The film absolutely rejects linearity, and understandably so, after all, it is essentially a film about Rupert, who does not exist on a spatial plane of "normal" rationality. So fueled by the belief that he is a talented comedian, Rupert simply refuses to believe any other course of action possible. The question then becomes whether one should criticize Rupert for his unusual actions and wild attempts to gain popularity. It would be one thing if Rupert were hurting people in the process, but aside from Jerry being taped to a chair for no apparent reason, Rupert seems intent on pleasing and being incredibly nice to everyone he meets, even the security guards who forcefully remove Rupert from Jerry's office. It is clear that Rupert really just wants to be a comedian and desires to share his material with the world, because, up until this point he has only heard the criticisms of his mother, a figure, in all its Freudian implications, that may well be another extension of his imagination. It would also be an entirely different film if Rupert were to appear on the show and completely bomb. Sure it is rather clear that much of his comedy is heavily self-depricating, but is that not the basis of most comedic routines, but the audience adore its delivery, humor and, for lack of better words, insanity, showing that the gift Rupert has is by no means imagined and very real, affirmed by his sharing it will a bar full of people. The trouble resides in reading into the film as any version of reality, when reviewing Taxi Driver, awhile back I discussed the possibility that the entire film is a dream sequence experience by Travis Bickle, suggested in his final glance into the camera through his rearview mirror. If that reading is possible with Taxi Driver, it is certainly a likely interpretation when Rupert Pupkin breaks the fourth wall in the closing moments of this film, even if ever so briefly. Of course, such an interpretation betrays everything I just wrote, but, to be honest, I am fine with that, because it only means that the film requires many revisits in the future.
Key Scene: The monologue is so built up that when it is finally delivered one cannot help but happily welcome it in all its madness.
This film is cheap enough on DVD and certainly has a quality about it that reject needing a bluray upgrade, although I would certainly not be opposed to such an acquisition in the future.