VOD film review: The King of Comedy
James R | On 26, Nov 2019
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Robert De Niro, Sandra Bernhard, Jerry Lews
There are two things you should know about The King of Comedy. One, it doesn’t have any royalty in it. And two, it isn’t very funny. Both of those, however, are precisely why Martin Scorsese’s dark drama about a comedian wanting to make it big is a timeless, twisted yarn.
Robert De Niro once again teams up with the Raging Bull director to play Robert Pupkin, a man who is obsessed with becoming famous, almost as much as he’s obsessed with TV comic Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), who hosts a nightly variety show. After one accidental encounter after a show, in which Langford casually palms him off with some general career advice, Pupkin’s conviction that he can be a star only grows – and he begins a path towards a drastic attempt to get the recognition he deserves.
That deluded, entitled, resentful outcast cuts a familiar figure in the Scorsese Cinematic Universe, and De Niro brings an echo of his Taxi Driver to his would-be funnyman; he might dress smartly, a suit with an always pristine pocket square, but he’s just as disturbed, unhinged and dangerous as his other sociopath. If Travis Bickle had a sitcom, this would be it.
And so the stage is set for a string of chummy, buddy two-handers between Langford and Pupkin, who swap friendly nicknames like old pals. But, of course, they’re all in Robert’s head, frequently interrupted by Pupkin’s mother demanding that he keep the noise down in the basement. Sandra Bernhard provides excellent support as Masha, a fellow obsessive fan, but where her devotion to her idol is visible, Pupkin’s is all the more disconcerting by its seemingly innocuous camouflage. De Niro plays him with a remarkably eerie deadpan smile, never hearing no for an answer and never noticing any criticism or caution that comes his way. (Shelley Hack quietly steals the whole show as TV exec Cathy Long, delivering a masterclass in icy politeness.)
Lewis, meanwhile, is effortlessly jovial as the TV host, so that when he drops the facade during scenes at his private home, the inability of that cruel, blunt rejection to pierce Pupkin’s bubble is all the more striking. The result is as much horror as it is satire, with every unsettling beat underplayed to heightened impact. It’s a worryingly pertinent study of celebrity culture and that common human urge to get their fair share of the limelight. “Tomorrow you’ll know I wasn’t kidding and you’ll all think I’m crazy,” Pupkin tells a studio audience. “But I figure it this way: better to be king for a night, than a schmuck for a lifetime.” Decades later, you suspect a number of people might still agree with him.