Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Films of Martin Scorsese Vol. 5: The King of Comedy (1983)

Robert De Niro plays one of his best roles to date when he portrays Rupert Pupkin, a somewhat unstable wannabe superstar who seeks nothing more than to be his living icon Jerry Langford (played by Jerry Lewis). His whole life he has followed, and idolized this Jonny Carson type comedian and late night talk show host, and now feels his time has come, and he must take his shot at super stardom by appearing on the Jerry Langford show. His determination to achieve this celebrity status escalates rapidly. He begins by teaming up with his equally deranged friend Masha (Sandra Bernard) and staging a rescue effort by which Masha will “act” like a obsessed super-fan and attack Jerry as he is leaving his show, in an effort to earn a moment of his time Rupert jumps in and rescues his idol from his psychotic friend, and in turn is successful in earning his chance to pitch himself.

The first exchange between Jerry and Rupert is the first of many awkward and somewhat sad moments that instantly show the audience that Jerry has absolutely no interest in what Rupert has to offer, something that Rupert himself is clearly unable to see. He insists that Jerry listen to his stand up comedy, and that he is destined to be the new (self proclaimed) King of Comedy. In an effort to rid himself of Ruperts company, Jerry brushes him off by telling him to call his secretary and set something up, a statement that Rupert does not take lightly. Completely oblivious to his lack of interest Rupert takes Jerry’s offhand statement to heart, and now believes that he is going to be on The Jerry Langford show. After several failed attempts at reaching Jerry on the phone Rupert visits the studio, and in the end is actually received rather kindly by the staff. Though he does not get to talk to Jerry face to face, the assistant of the show’s executive producer agrees to listen to a tape of Ruperts comedy, an act of kindness that is a pretty nice thing. Unfortunately this is not good enough, Rupert makes the tape, and they do in fact listen to it. However they kindly turn him down and tell him that if he can get more experience, and can begin working in clubs that they would send a scout to hear him. For many people this would seem very generous. However Rupert is not an ordinary person, he has it set in his head that Jerry is his friend, and that he is supposed to talk to him and be on his show, so he doesn’t give up there.

There are several moments in the film that Rupert, in his mother’s basement where he lives, acts out his fantasies of this developing friendship with Jerry Langford. These moments are pivotal to showing us the kind of mentally deranged person he really is. It begins innocently enough as Rupert acts out a conversation with Jerry over lunch in which the talk show host pleads with Rupert to take over his show for six weeks, as he has grown tired and needs a break. Rupert refuses several times, and gets to the point where Jerry is begging him for help, at which point he takes sympathy and agrees to do the show. This is an important scene, as it shows us that Rupert’s admiration goes dangerously further than just being a big fan, he want to BE his idol, to the point where he wants to hurt him and see him suffer in the process.

These seemingly innocent fantasies take a turn for the worse, as after one imaginary encounter where Jerry listens to and loves Ruperts comedy, he invites him to his country home for the weekend. Even though this conversation all happens in Ruperts head, he seems to believe it’s real. So he gathers a local bar maid friend of whom he had a slight crush on, and with bags packed he takes her with him to Jerry’s house. His butler answers the door, and to his shock finds this strange couple ready to settle in for the weekend. This begins one of the films funniest moments, as the butler (played by Kim Chan) frantically panics and calls Jerry to tell him these strange folks have come to his home for the weekend “I’m already having heart attack” he proclaims as he insists Jerry hurry home. This is it; this is the last straw for Jerry. He completely sheds the politeness and outright rips Rupert a new one, and brashly kicks him out of his home and out of his life. This leads to one of the most shocking and cold lines I have ever heard in a film, when Rupert pleads “I made a Mistake”, to which Jerry retorts, “So did Hitler!”

Finally, Rupert understands he is not going to get his shot easily, he must take drastic measures to secure his ten minutes he needs to show the world who he is and make a name for himself. So he and Masha plot to kidnap Jerry Langford, keep him captive and ransom a chance for Rupert to perform his show’s opening monologue. Surprisingly he understands the consequences and knows that if he pulls this off he will face punishment, but as he proclaims during the absolute best moments in the film, “It’s better to be king for a night, than a schmuck for a lifetime

The King of Comedy is a stand out film in Scorsese’s catalogue for several reasons. For one it’s his lightest effort (well, before Hugo that is), even though it does come with very complex characters and very dark undertones of instability and restrained hostility. It is also his funniest. This is a genuinely funny movie, and most of the credit goes to Robert De Niro. This is one of his best characters for sure, and one of the most complicated. He also stretches his comedic talents a great deal. Sure he has shown some comedic outings later in his career with the Meet the Parents and Analyze This movies, but this is a much darker and more effective comedy that he displays. He isn’t playing a funny character; he is playing a very dark and serious character, who happens to be legitimately funny. When the executive assistant tells him that he has potential, and that he needs to develop his comedy she was not just being polite. This adds a layer of sympathy for the Rupert character. Despite his rash actions, it’s hard not to feel a great deal of pity for him. On one hand he is just trying to live his dream, but on the other hand his impatience and determination prevents his from understanding the process it takes, and he is in turn trying too hard to fast track himself and skip the steps involves in becoming a star. Though his actual comedy routine is kept from us for most of the film, when we do finally get to hear his act it suddenly becomes very clear why he is who he is. His act is almost a confession in disguise, and is a truly powerful moment. And despite how funny it actually is, it's very sad at the same time.

Jerry Lewis is also wonderful, which is not a surprise because he is playing a character not too far removed from himself, and even contributed some moments into the film that he has actually experienced himself. That’s not to say that he is a mean person, because the character he is portraying is not actually trying to be mean to Rupert. Someone in his position needs to often put up with this type of fan banter all the time. Maybe he should have been straight forward with Rupert from the beginning, but clearly he was oblivious to the kind of character he was dealing with.

The King of Comedy sadly takes a side step to the other Scorsese/De Niro teamings, but defiantly deserves a watch. It may not be the household name that their other collaborations have risen to, but if you ever get the change to watch this film I strongly urge you to.

-Jeff Wildman

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