King of Comedy, the (1982)

July 07, 2011 By Mike B
Movie Review

What Worked?

Amongst the burning light-bulb flashes that fire away at the battle-tested, iconic TV show host, a cartoon-like figure snakes through the crowd. He sports a powder blue suit with a cheerfully bleeding tie; the tacky ensemble matches his thinly cut mustache and gently combed over hair. Rupert Pupkin is a nobody, and barely gets noticed by others just like him. He is a pathetically confident comedian with no experience, and lands the break of his life when he successfully converses with TV show host Jerry Langford; yet, this meeting triggers his downfall.

Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy is about a man that’s unnoticed in the world, and the film initially went unnoticed, as it was unappreciated in 1982. This work serves as a brutally honest reflection of the alienated fan’s fixation on the media world over reality, and was definitely ahead of its time, as it reflects modern interests in the fifteen minutes of fame given to everyday people in reality TV-shows.

Scorsese directs the shots with painfully creative realism, slowly blurring the lines of media fantasy and blunt reality. His film displays the dangers of media-obsessed fans, and the oblivious control that celebrities have over those fans. This is shown through Rupert Pupkin, as he invests himself in the realistic fantasy that the media builds, fueled by his obsession of the American dream of media fame, causing him to alienate himself from the real world in hopes of becoming a societal God: a celebrity. Scorsese’s chosen film style was very much influenced by a classic film entitled Black Narcissus, directed by Michael Powell. Scorsese’s film starts off by displaying an obvious difference between reality and Pupkin’s day-dreaming, but Scorsese slowly melts the reality with fantasy, until the audience fails to pull them apart. The slightly haloed lighting and unnatural dialogue from other characters marks the fantasies of Rupert, but by the end of the film everything becomes ambiguous.

The naively optimistic Rupert Pupkin is embodied exactingly by a prime Robert DeNiro. Once again, DeNiro becomes someone else entirely, as if DeNiro never existed. DeNiro, playing Rupert, is an embarrassing figure because he is so oblivious to his dangerous obsession with TV show host Jerry Langford. He’s brutally persistent, slightly insane and chooses to live within his own fantasy of being a legendary stand-up comedian. The film builds up to the stand-up comedy act that Rupert performs, and we expect to see him fall flat, but he doesn’t quite do that. The refreshing surprise about Rupert’s stand-up act is that he actually has some talent for an amateur comedian that has never performed. Robert DeNiro made sure he’d give a stand-up comic performance that drew some actual interest and laughs by methodically studying stand-up comedian Richard Belzer. In addition to DeNiro’s virtuoso performance, Sandra Bernhard puts in a fine effort as the infatuated Masha, and Jerry Lewis turns in a convincing performance as the acclaimed TV-show host, Jerry Langford.

Scorsese’s the King of Comedy cites the beginning of the end of the personal film. The film predicts society’s current fixation on reality TV “stars” and society’s continued obsession with celebrities. Robert DeNiro’s precisely embodies a pathetically imaginative fan, Scorsese directs with crisp ambiguity, and Paul Zimmerman’s screenplay provides a narrative that feels attentively personal; all these elements combine to produce one of the best films of  the 1980s. Ultimately, this film serves as a critical observation of society’s obsession with celebrities, where celebrities obliviously have control over how people form their own identities.

Potential Drawbacks:

Many viewers that do not appreciate subtle storytelling or a film driven by rich character development may not enjoy this film. In addition, those who don’t enjoy films with ambiguity may not like this film as well.

Film Recommendations:

Taxi Driver
One Hour Photo

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