THE STORY – Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) is a failure in life but a celebrity in his own mind, hosting an imaginary talk show in his mother’s basement. When he meets actual talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), he’s convinced it will provide his big break, but Langford isn’t interested in the would-be comedian. Undaunted, Pupkin effectively stalks Langford — and when that doesn’t work, he kidnaps him, offering his release in exchange for a guest spot on Langford’s show.
THE CAST – Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis, Tony Randall, Diahnne Abbott & Sandra Bernhard
THE TEAM – Martin Scorsese (Director) & PauL D. Zimmerman (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 109 Minutes
By Josh Parham
It is not a controversial opinion to state that Martin Scorsese is one of, if not the, greatest living filmmakers. A career that spans over fifty years has brought undisputed masterpieces to the screen. Even in his current years, many still argue that he is performing at the top of his game. Still, peppered throughout his filmography are certain films that have gained much respect but perhaps do not illicit the same amount of universal acclaim. “The King of Comedy” had to struggle quite awhile to find an audience that rejected it upon its initial release, and thankfully it did, because it is a more subdued look from Scorsese that still manages to find a chilling relevance today.
This story centers around a man named Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro). Pupkin has a great sense of angst about his life, desperate to achieve something great and bring meaning to it. He finds that in the form of comedy and has ambitions to break big by debuting on the most popular late-night program. After a brief conversation with the show’s host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), Pupkin becomes even more determined to make his fantasies come true, no matter what that cost may be to him or those who would try to stand in his way. He sinks further into his delusions, and with the aid of a close friend (Sandra Bernhard), Pupkin takes action to make sure the world will know who he is.
If one recalls a style most associated with Scorsese, it is his kinetic nature with the camera that collides equally with flamboyant characters to give the world a rich tapestry. However, Scorsese has also shown an interest in much more muted worlds that give way to great introspection. This film exists at somewhat of a crossroads, where the filmmaking does not indulge in exuberance, nor do many of its characters save for its lead. But his directorial eye is always fixed on the stark world that Pumpkin inhabits. There’s a sense of rigidness that easily gives way to an unhinged nature lurking on the sides, and it is a credit to Scorsese for capturing this in such a direct manner. This may not be remembered as one of his most impactful directorial efforts, but it perfectly suits the story being told here.
Truthfully, the direction is probably more supported by the writing and performances, and Paul D. Zimmerman’s script serves as a great foundation for the themes explored within the film. He crafts a screenplay that finds the darkly comedic tones in these inherently awkward situations without ever turning it into too much of a spectacle. The situations he creates feel real and grounded, and the exploration into the darkly twisted world of celebrity worship makes for a fascinating portrayal that is both excruciating to look at but at the same time incredibly engaging.
The collaboration between Scorsese and De Niro is one for the ages, and while this pairing may not be quite as celebrated, it is another worthy addition to the great body of work they’ve made together. De Niro plays this character with the right amount of blatant insecurities on display that is buried underneath a bravado façade. He commands the screen whenever he appears, and you simply can’t take your eyes off him, whether you want to or not. There is a constant struggle between the meek and the forceful within Pupkin, and De Niro’s performance perfectly captures that with incredible effect.
De Niro is not the only member of this ensemble that is worthy of praise. At first glance, one would think that Lewis is playing a version of his already well-known screen persona, but so much of that lively comedic spirit has been intentionally drained. There is a lot of venom and resentment in Lewis’s performance here, mixed with a tinge of sadness, that is used effectively against those antagonists around him. Bernhard throws herself into a wildly manic character that is completely captivating whenever she is on screen. Even the briefest of roles make a noticeable impact in the film, and it all helps to connect with these characters even more.
While there are many elements to this film that are worthy of acknowledgment, the film isn’t perfect and does keep it from crossing over into the upper echelon of Scorsese’s filmography. Much of the film has a very tightly controlled focus in its plot and character study, but once a major action is taken in the third act, it starts to become a bit looser and shaggier. The momentum that had been building up so well in those earlier moments suddenly don’t feel quite as gripping. The actors deliver, but something feels a bit lost in regards to totally engaging with the film. Fortunately, the film sticks its landing, but it does wobble a bit to get there.
Even though there are problems in the third act of the film, it does not take away so many of the wonderful things that are present throughout. All the performances are outstanding, particularly from De Niro who showcases another eccentric character with a fascinating journey. The screenplay is sharp and insightful, and Scorsese helps to bring these elements together and create a film that speaks to many themes we continue to wrestle with today. The great thing about Scorsese’s career is that there are very few bad films to point to, and he always will provide a conversation to accompany the art he creates. It’s no different here, particularly as it is a conversation that has seemingly not yet stopped.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – A timely message about the nature of celebrity worship is expertly expressed in the capable hands of Scorsese working with an interesting scrip. The performances also shine from every member of the ensemble, particularly De Niro.
THE BAD – The third act loses some momentum that worked so well before, leading the pacing to slow and the story to not become quite as engaging.
THE FINAL SCORE – 8/10