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King of Comedy, The

Fox // PG // December 17, 2002
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Gil Jawetz | posted December 26, 2002 | E-mail the Author

While some of the biggest films of the 80's have recently shoved their way through to DVD (ET, Back to the Future) one of the best has quietly slipped onto shelves. Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy is a darkly uncompromising film about obsession. It pits the fan against the celebrity and doesn't even attempt to create any likeable characters.

The King of Comedy tells the story of Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) and Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). Langford is a Johnny Carson-style late night talk show host and Pupkin the aspiring stand-up comedian who won't rest until he gets his shot. The thing of it is that Pupkin doesn't have the regular kind of ambition. He doesn't have a finely honed act or a will to write great jokes. He mostly just wants the end product; the success. Specifically, he wants Langford's success. And he tries to chip off some of that Langford magic several ways, first by more or less fabricating an encounter, then by hanging around Jerry's office, then his house, and finally by kidnapping the comedian.

Despite that plot turn this is no hipster heist caper. Scorsese's off-beat rhythms and De Niro's droll performance create a real air of danger and perversity. Pupkin practically attacks Langford and his employees (notably Shelly Hack) but without ever using more than words and his eyes. He goes from faux sincerity and humor to icy anger and bitter disappointment in an instant, a transition the very unbalanced Pupkin makes countless times in the film. This isn't a guy on the verge of snapping, we sense, but rather one whose been over the edge for quite some time.

If there's a symmetry to Scorsese's films (The Last Waltz and New York, New York are musical flip-sides, Mean Streets and Goodfellas zip up and down the mob totem pole) then Rupert Pupkin is a twist on Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle. Both characters have no place in society but both drift through it fairly unnoticed. Pupkin, like Bickle, aspires to achieve some sort of greatness, although his is an entirely selfish one. He doesn't seem to even want the happiness that many people think financial success will buy them. He just wants the fame. In a way that makes him even more twisted than the famously psychotic Bickle. There are no reasonable explanations for Pupkin's obsession.

Still, it's an obsession that a lot of people have. The crowds gathered outside Langford's studio waiting for a glimpse or an autograph are identical to real crowds outside shows and concerts. Pupkin's "friend" Masha (Sandra Bernhard) is the kind of inexplicably wealthy nutjob with nothing to do with her money than to try and get near famous people. Her character is nearly as twisted as Pupkin's and Bernhard delivers a knock-out performance that stands as one of the best female turns in a Scorsese film.

Similarly, Jerry Lewis delivers a surprising and unpredictable performance. His Langford displays almost none of the wacky charm of Lewis' own character creations. He's a gruff, unfriendly man who draws a clear line between his television persona and his private one. More than most kidnapping victims, he's one that you can barely muster up any sympathy for.

The best performance in the film, however, is De Niro's. Showing just how brilliant he is (or was) he creates yet another unforgettably specific character, one with nearly no obvious similarities to Jake LaMotta, Travis Bickle, Johnny Boy or the young Vito Corleone. He once again shifts his shape, his face and his voice in such a way that he fully embodies his role. One of the few modern actors that could convincingly portray an inarticulate character, (unlike, say, Robin Williams, who, even in One Hour Photo is never more than an Elmer Fudd impression away from his zany comic persona,) De Niro is fully real as the pathetic Pupkin, manically trying to rationalize his irrational behavior to Masha, ineffectually trying to charm Langford and desperately trying to get his off-screen mother (Catherine Scorsese, delivering a killer voice-over) to quiet down long enough for him to practice chatting up his cardboard cutouts of Langford and Liza Minelli.

From the cork ceilings in Langford's offices to the cameos by Dr. Joyce Brothers and Victor Borge to the weird guy mimicking Pupkin's hand-movements, King of Comedy is one of Martin Scorsese's strangest and best films. When Pupkin finally gets to show off some of his routine the ultimate joke is that it really isn't that bad and with that ending, the director seems to be saying, it's all just a big, ugly, dumb joke anyway.

The anamorphic widescreen video looks excellent. The film, which seems of have been shot in as ugly a way as possible (the sets, clothes, color-scheme and hair seem to drain the film stock of any life it might have) but that's a stylistic maneuver. The transfer itself is marvelous, especially when compared with the poor videos available to date. The muted colors are clear, the image crisp and the detail reasonably good.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono soundtrack is fine. It may sound limited compared to today's blockbusters, but it serves this dialog driven film just fine. Dolby Digital 2.0 mono tracks are also available in French and Spanish with English and Spanish subtitles also available.

The main extra is a behind-the-scenes documentary that primarily features clips of the film cut with interviews. Unlike the similar documentary on the Taxi Driver DVD, however, this one doesn't feature the whole cast, but rather just Scorsese and Bernhard. Still, Scorsese has a lot of interesting comments on the material and isn't afraid to recall the lukewarm reception the chilly film initially received. Bernhard, however, is well aware that Masha is the best character she's ever been given to play (any others worth remembering were in pieces she created herself) and she's obviously a bit miffed that no one knows what to do with her uniquely off-putting energy.

A deleted scenes section just features one short clip of Lewis on the street talking to some fans and a longer one featuring Lewis' entire monolog shot for the Jerry Langford show. Only a snippet appears in the film and it's interesting to see him work his classic comic mojo on Langford's slimy material. It's a shame that more deleted scenes weren't included (I remember reading about a Liza Minelli cameo that didn't make the final cut. Maybe David Gest had it pulled!) The disc also features trailers for the film.

Martin Scorsese has made a lot of great films and has populated them with a lot of memorable characters, many with dark and confused minds. Rupert Pupkin is key to Scorsese's path as an artist. It's a crossroad between his outsider's point-of-view and his increasing insider status as a film industry player. Rupert is trapped on the outside and Langford is trapped in. The King of Comedy is that moment when those worlds collide and, in true Scorsese fashion, it's a perverse vision, both funny and deadly serious.

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