It was a rough week last week. Mediocre, or worse, movies as far as the eye could see. The situation was dire and there wasn’t a solid recommendation in sight. If it wasn’t for Westworld my TV may have not made it through the week.
Circumstance lead me to an older movie that is shockingly relevant for today. It’s more relevant today than in 1982 upon it’s release. More shocking it was a film starring Robert DeNiro made by the legendary Martin Scorsese. I heard about this movie while taking Scorsese’s Master Class (also recommended for film fans).
The King of Comedy follows Rupert Pupkin (DeNiro). Pupkin’s desire is to reach celebrity status as a stand up comic. Pupkin, like many desperate for celebrity, wants the express elevator to the top. Any thought of grinding it out and working for success left Pupkin’s mind long before we meet him.
Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) is the biggest thing in late night talk shows. Comedians he features go somewhere; there is no bigger platform for aspiring talent. Langford is mobbed after every show by aspiring fans and talents. Among them, is Rupert Pupkin.
Pupkin pushes his way into Langford’s limo while pretending to be part of his entourage. He corners Langford into a conversation that any sane person can tell is uncomfortable and unwarranted. Pupkin gets the typical line of call my secretary and she’ll set it up. A common blow off for this level of crazy.
Pupkin’s mental derangement peaks. Drastic measures unfold to find his fifteen minutes of fame.
Scorsese and DeNiro belong working together. Growing up in the same neighborhood the two knew each other in their teen years. Whenever the masters of their respective crafts collaborate the results are brilliant.
Scorsese always strives for the feel of authenticity in his films. His films, when picked apart, aren’t a complete reflection of true life. In watching them the themes and details add up to an experience that brings the movie to life. Something as small as the missing chunk of Pupkin’s mustache all the way to a scale recreation of the Five Points. Every last detail in a Scorsese film bring together the whole.
DeNiro commands the screen with an ease that looks so casual you could almost mistake it for him not trying. His transformation into a disillusioned moron who craves only fame is subtle. The subtlety brings out the genius. The movie catches you off guard by both caring for and despising Pupkin and those like him.
The film journeys into Pupkin’s mind. The real world and his perceived one on parallel lines. These transitions are jarring to the viewer. There is no fanfare surrounding the switch. After a couple switches the lack of attention paid to the switch is another stroke of Scorsese’s genius. You aren’t seeing another world. Pupkin doesn’t live in two of them. You’re seeing one world. Pupkin’s world.
The word celebrity in 2018 is a pale shadow of what it was. People are celebrities for any and every reason. Some of the biggest celebrities in American Pop Culture are famous for doing nothing at all. People feel that even this cheapened level isn’t only attainable, but easy since no hard work is apparent. Jerry Lewis and DeNiro experienced a switch of how the public interacted with them as soon as they ‘made it.’
Pupkin craving fame. Pupkin feeling this fame was his to claim is more the case in 2018 than it was in 1982. If Pupkin’s story was told today he would easily justify his actions. He’d be proud to reach 250 subscribers on YouTube. Going ‘viral’ would be more important than working hard. The movie is a tragedy disguised as a dark comedy.
By the time Pupkin’s bill comes due you have certain expectations of his consequences. If you’re like me what you desire and what you are given are not quite the same. The disappointment (not sure that’s the right word) actually makes the movie stronger. The ending presented in the movie is the truer ending in the feeling of the events. The feeling of realism is, once again, what Scorsese strives for in all his films.
The King of Comedy, on its surface, appeared to be a quick dark comedy that I could watch and move on from. In the hands of a less talented director, even a less talented actor, it may have been just that. With DeNiro on the screen and Scorsese commanding things behind the lens we get a movie that works. The King of Comedy works with a tub of popcorn and also as a study of a man and mental illness.
The King of Comedy is streaming now on Amazon Prime