What’s the best Martin Scorsese film? Ask a random assortment of people and they might say Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas etc. But almost nobody mentions The King of Comedy. I have no idea why this is; The King of Comedy is a near masterpiece on nearly every level, but most of all in Robert DeNiro’s performance; mixing together a perfect cocktail of hilarity, drama, menace and a whole heap of sympathy, creating one of the most engaging characters of his whole career.
Starring Robert DeNiro and Jerry Lewis, The King of Comedy follows DeNiro’s obsessive fan, Rupert Pupkin as he tries to get a face to face meeting with Lewis’ popular talk show host Jerry Langford, eventually resorting to kidnapping. As well as this we see Rupert’s delusions of himself and Jerry hanging out and talking about Rupert’s material, in fact these delusions even bring the ending of the film into question. These delusions are followed by the film cutting back and we see Rupert talking to himself in his mum’s basement surrounded by eerie cut outs of Jerry and his celebrity guests. While a man’s crazy delusions framed by his sad, crazy life doesn’t seem like material rife for comedy, The King of Comedy works really well, largely thanks to Robert DeNiro’s brilliant performance and Scorsese’s always stellar direction. I didn’t expect to laugh as much as I did to this film, but it goes to show that Scorsese can do just about anything, and it also proves Robert DeNiro can be funny without sending up his screen persona. There are no ‘are you talking to me?’ jokes in this film; DeNiro is just a funny man, with some great comic timing and slapstick skills.
But I don’t think this PG rated black comedy was what people had in mind after previous Scorsese and DeNiro collaborations Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, but in my opinion it’s the pair’s best films. Sure it doesn’t have any of the uber-violence and none of the almost-poetic swearing that characterises a lot of Scorsese films but that really isn’t a problem, in fact the lighter tone works perfectly. Because of it the film isn’t mean spirited in it’s portrayal of unhinged kidnapper Pupkin, and at times it’s even sweet, making the audience really feel for Rupert. And DeNiro’s performance is pitch perfect. While I feel he’ll be remembered for his brilliant turns as violent criminals and psychopaths from other Scorsese films like Travis Bickle and Jimmy Conway, it’s his turn as the gentle but deluded fan Rupert Pupkin that I would like him to be remembered for. Even when he is kidnapping Jerry Lewis and tying him to a chair, you still feel for him. And the pay off when we finally see him achieving his dream and performing stand up on Jerry’s show is both very funny and very sad, but mostly, very satisfying.
Despite the ‘comedy’ tag the film has, a lot of the brilliant humour comes from the awkward meetings Pupkin has with people such as with his kind-of girlfriend Rita (Diahnne Abbott) or the brilliant scene when he and Rita visit Jerry’s house unannounced. And underneath all of the comedy of Pupkin’s character lies a very sad past, revealed through the monologue at he end of the film, making him one of the most layered characters DeNiro has ever played and also one of the best. The film has the classic Scorsese aesthetic, and does share similarities with other Scorsese movies like Taxi Driver and Bringing Out The Dead; these films all follow an unhinged main character through New York, abiet with less violence, as we are allowed into their subjectivity along their travels through the city. And of these three Robert DeNiro/Martin Scorsese films, The King of Comedy is my favourite. But the film was unfortunately not recognised as the modern great it is today during it’s initial release, but has found much more critical praise in subsequent years. The problem for critics of the early eighties I think, was that the film was way before it’s time. It’s satire on the media, celebrity culture and celebrity fandoms is even more relevant in today’s times than it was back then, which also makes the film sort of timeless. While The King of Comedy is clearly DeNiro’s film it’s also worth mentioning the brilliant performance by Jerry Lewis. Playing the extremely popular talk show host Jerry Langford, he is the target of crazed fans such as Rupert. His and DeNiro’s partially improvised conversation scenes are my personal highlight of the film.
The Bottom Line: The King of Comedy is one Martin Scorsese’s best films but unfortunately it’s also one of his more overlooked. The film is an often hilarious look at celebrity culture that’s more relevant today than it’s ever been. With a great turn by Jerry Lewis and a best-of-his-career turn by Robert DeNiro, The King of Comedy is a film easy to recommend, and is up their with Goodfellas as one of my personal favourite Scorsese films.