Monday, June 25, 2012

I'd Love To Turn You On At The Movies #42 - The King of Comedy (1983, dir. Martin Scorsese)

All the movies Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro made together seem to fit into two categories: gangster films (Mean Streets, Goodfellas or Casino) and bleak movies about ultraviolent anti-heroes (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Cape Fear). Good as these films were – and some are among the best ever made – they give the impression that there was a limit to what the two could do together. But then there’s The King of Comedy, a weird little early eighties film that shows the breadth of talent and skill these artists possessed.
It’s the story of a wannabe comedian named Rupert Pupkin (played by De Niro) who’s desperate to land a spot on The Jerry Langford Show, a late-night variety program along the lines of The Tonight Show, with Jerry Lewis as the Johnny Carson-like host. Unlike many of the characters De Niro has played in Scorsese films, Pupkin is kind of a putz. He has a silly mustache, combs his hair over to one side and wears dorky sports coats and slacks. And he lives with his mom. In one classic scene, he turns on a tape recorder in his room and pretends he’s being interviewed by Langford, only to be interrupted by her shouting at him from the living room. “Mom!” Pupkin shouts back in a teenager-worthy whine that sounds incredibly funny and a little bit creepy coming from a 34-year-old man. As a comedian, Pupkin is a walking flop; he uses canned lines everyday on strangers, and they all induce groans. Yet Pupkin quickly reveals himself to be a menacing character, and after a series of very, very uncomfortable run-ins with Langford, he and another insane fan named Masha (played brilliantly by Sandra Bernhard) kidnap the TV star and hold him until Pupkin is offered an appearance on the show.
The King of Comedy is also a cinematic departure from other Scorsese works; it lacks the aggressive camera work and editing of his classics. Still, I rate it among his best, mostly because it’s a masterpiece of dramatic tension. From the beginning scene, when Pupkin muscles his way into Langford’s limo and begs for a chance to be on his show, this movie seethes with tension right through to the end. Part of this is due to the outrageousness of the kidnap plot, but it owes more to the acting and the subtlety of the script. In that early scene where Pupkin and Langford are in a limo together, for example, face to face for the first time, their motivations are so clear – Langford’s to be left alone, Pupkin’s to be accepted – that the clash between them is vivid and stark. Yet the scene keeps going beyond probability because the Langford character is just enough of a mensch to not kick Pupkin out of the car, and Pupkin is just enough of a psycho to not pick up on Langford’s vibe and just sane enough to appeal to Langford’s inner mensch. It’s a complex social interaction, but De Niro and Lewis make it look easy and natural. It takes a lot of skill to pull off that kind of scene. I also rank it high on my list of top Scorsese films because it’s wickedly smart and funny. Smart because he’s basically giving us a crime thriller in a comedy’s clothing. And it’s very funny, though darkly and ironically so. Some of the funniest lines and scenes are funny precisely because Pupkin is not funny. His jokes bomb hilariously, and some of the wittiest zingers are aimed at Pupkin’s lame humor. So it’s kind of a meta-film: a dark thriller about comedians that’s as hilarious and scary as can be.
- Joe Miller

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