Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 10, 2003)
In the early Eighties, the dangers that come with celebrity seemed more prominent than ever. In short order, lunatics killed John Lennon and also attempted to slay Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II. Martin Scorsese’s 1983 flick The King of Comedy didn’t delve into such murderous tendencies, but it took a look at the nature of those obsessed with fame.
Comedy follows an aspiring comedian named Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro). The movie starts with shots of rabid fans outside of the New York studio where they shoot the popular late night program The Jerry Langford Show. As Langford (Jerry Lewis) tries to make it to his car, fans pounce, and Pupkin manages to finagle his way into the automobile. Pupkin badgers Langford for a try-out, which the TV host promises to accommodate if he contacts his secretary.
Pupkin makes attempts along those lines and proves quite persistent, as he shows up at the studio day after day to pester Langford’s assistant Cathy Long (Shelley Hack). Pupkin also tries to woo Rita (Diahnne Abbott), the former beauty queen of their high school. He attempts to impress her with his allegedly burgeoning career, but this generally falls flat.
Essentially the movie follows Pupkin’s escalating nuttiness. He becomes more and more obsessed and delusional as the movie progresses, especially after the folks at the TV studio rebuff his advances. With the assistance of another scary fan named Masha (Sandra Bernhard), he takes his determination to be a star to more desperate levels.
Although Comedy often makes things a bit too simplistic, it still provides a lively and provocative look at psycho fans. Scorsese nicely balances the scary elements with comedy, and Pupkin proves to be an interesting character for De Niro. Back in 1983, he’d made his name with intense roles such as Jake LaMotta and Travis Bickle, while Pupkin offers a seemingly more innocent character.
In reality, Pupkin appears just as badly flawed and threatening as the others, as he’ll clearly do whatever he feels he needs to do to achieve his goals. De Niro adopts a doughy and nebbishy look for Pupkin, which makes him appear less hostile, and the actor brings a level of vulnerability and awkwardness to the character that doesn’t appear in his other roles. I like the fact that De Niro doesn’t force the part and create a more overtly vicious personality. In some ways, that makes Pupkin seem scarier, as he doesn’t demonstrate such obvious aggression.
The remaining cast also does quite well. On the surface, Masha seems even nuttier than Pupkin, and for most of the movie, she comes across like the one more likely to actually harm Langford. Despite these more overt signs of insanity, Bernhard offers a wonderfully natural take on the part. She feels real and smooth in the role and presents a nicely understated sense of menace. Even when Masha displays wildly nutty behavior, Bernhard fits in the behaviors cleanly and creates a terrific performance.
I never liked Jerry Lewis as a performer, but he provides very solid work as the TV show host. Admittedly, he plays himself to some degree; the part doesn’t seem like much of a stretch. However, Lewis offers a naturalistic turn that fits in with the story well. He doesn’t fall back on gimmicks or schtick and reins in his normal comedic personality well. I admire the fact that Lewis doesn’t attempt to go to any extremes in the part, as I worried that he’d emote heavily. Instead, his work melds nicely with the rest of the movie.
Scorsese displays the material in a fairly dry and unemotional manner, though I think he makes the movie seem a bit too simplistic. On one hand, no one ever attempts to make Pupkin or the others appear sympathetic or likeable, and the flick doesn’t go into extremes in either direction. Scorsese also doesn’t tip how much of the movie falls into the category of fantasy or reality; it seems very possible that many apparently factual segments actually take place in Pupkin’s head.
However, the movie tends to view things one-dimensionally. For example, when we start to learn about the causes of Pupkin’s mental issues, these come about in a rather predictable way. I won’t divulge the root problems, but they don’t seem inventive at all. These concerns make the movie a bit less effective, as they provide easy topics.
Nonetheless, I rather liked The King of Comedy. The movie’s aged quite well over the last 20 years, and though it seems somewhat thin at times, it provides enough provocative material to make it compelling. In addition, a collection of excellent performances add real spark to the flick.
Cool cameos department: look for the Clash as “street scum” in one scene. In addition, Fred de Cordova plays the producer of the Langford program. Many will remember de Cordova as the longtime real-life producer of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.