Dir: Martin Scorsese | Writer: Paul D Zimmerman | Cast: Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis, Diahnne Abbott, Sandra Bernhard | US | Comedy | 109min
“At the bottom…yes that’s a perfect way to start.” advises Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) to Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) during a tense car conversation. Pupkin is a wannabe stand up comedian and fantasist who manages – with the help of stalker Marsha (Sandra Bernhard) – to gain entry into Lawford’s car and persuade him for a break in show business. When their plan fails they kidnap comedian Langford whose influence finally gets them the spot on Lawford’s TV show. The King of Comedy is all about whether Pupkin really manages to engineer a rise to the top or remain at the bottom of the heap. This all depends on how you view the film’s ambiguous ending. I wont reveal that but sketch in a little more of this remarkable film.
Apart from its thematic connection with Taxi Driver (Travis and Pumpkin are highly disturbed loners) it is hard to pin down THE KING OF COMEDY as a Scorsese picture from its style. For me that’s a positive for it reveals a spontaneity and lightness of touch. Too often Scorsese films are flawed by their earnest tone. THE KING OF COMEDY’s absence of over-control, but superb fluid craftsmanship, makes for one of his best pictures.
Take the ease with which Scorsese directs De Niro in his attempts to have a meeting arranged by Langford’s office staff. Firstly they get his name wrong, calling him Pumpkin or Pimpkin.When their polite attempts to fob Pupkin off fail they review his audition tape and then reject it. Finally Pupkin has to be physically ejected, by the security staff, from the building. His attention seeking is very funny (I love the moment where De Niro, who won’t leave the reception area, calmly looks up at the ceiling and praises its architectural design.) De Niro has been criticised for playing Pupkin like a mannequin. Now there’s an element of this. That’s not detrimental but a spellbinding asset as we observe this embarrassingly creepy man. Sandra Bernhard has never done anything better. And Diahnne Abbott playing Rita, the bar woman Pupkin tries to seduce, is excellent as the desired queen of the king.
Yet it’s Jerry Lewis (the film’s only real and famous comedian) who deserves the loudest praise. Lewis doesn’t so much act as fiercely convey a relentless and difficult man – just check a recent Youtube ‘interview’ with the now 91 year old, for similar bloody minded obduracy. Lewis as Langford fights back with indignation and scorn refusing to be intimidated by – in his own word – the moronic Pupkin. Even Lawford’s humiliation at being kidnapped (taped to a chair to look like an Egyptian mummy) merely exacerbates his seething contempt for the kidnappers. Jerry Lewis delivers a magnificently mean and horribly unforgettable ‘performance’. It’s a master class in resistance to the sick celebrity seekers of the world.
THE KING OF COMEDY is a bitter take on shaping the American Dream. A film as dark-hearted as Frankenheimer’s Seconds and as downbeat as Rafelson’s The King of Marvin Gardens. Three great American movies about deluded aspirations. All would have made an amazing triple bill at the long gone and legendary Scala cinema. Now just devour this one at home, and be dazzled. Alan Price