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My Survey of Scorsese: The King of Comedy

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Martin Scorsese’s follow-up to one of his best films — to date or since — is arguably the least approachable film in his canon. I had seen The King of Comedy many years ago, and all I could remember from that first experience was a vague sense of unease or distaste that I brought with me into — and had confirmed by — this latest encounter.

I have never been a fan of the comedy of awkward protagonists in awkward situations, often improvisation-driven, that has become such a cultural touchstone in recent years. The Office (both the U.K. and U.S. versions), Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret are just a few mainstays of this subgenre for which I have little or no patience. I don’t like things that make me cringe, and I can’t see the humor in a situation I find discomfiting being exacerbated by a character I don’t like. The King of Comedy isn’t necessarily meant to be funny, but it is based on the same formula.

The protagonist here, aspiring stand-up comic Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), has the wardrobe, grooming and smarmy personality of a bad salesman, trying to project a charismatic attitude that seems copied from bad TV. Rupert lives both in his mother’s basement and in a delusional, juvenile fantasy of his own design, one that’s not based on anything he’s seen in the real world. He’s a 13-year-old practicing an Oscar acceptance speech in front of a mirror. His laugh is fake and forced. His gestures are exaggerated as though he’s always playing to the back of the house. His confrontation tactic is to just keep talking in the hope that he can run out the clock or wear down those who would deny him.

The object of Rupert’s delusion, his ticket to stardom, is Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), who in this film’s universe is, essentially, Johnny Carson. He’s the biggest talk-show host in the world, and yet one wonders how he could possibly inspire the adulation and crazed devotion his fans exhibit.

However flawed and aloof Johnny may have been in his personal life, when he stepped in front of the camera he was one of the most charming, engaging, purely and instantly likable public figures of the last century. Jerry, on the other hand, greets his audience with a cold, unsmiling smirk of self-satisfaction (the same one we see later painted on the walls of his reception area). He’s dressed in a dark suit, and the studio lights reflect off his oversize eyeglasses so we can’t really get a good look at his eyes (or into his soul). He expects the applause, making a small gesture to command more from the audience. He never really smiles, though everyone around him — his bandleader, his announcer — grins broadly, as though it’s the best night of their lives. Everything about Jerry says, “I’m doing you a favor by being here tonight.”

Rupert and Jerry’s meet-cute, as it were, is effected after the show by Rupert’s accomplice, Masha (Sandra Bernhard), a nasty little sociopath — and, apparently, socialite, living in the kind of inexplicable opulence one imagines she obtained by killing her wealthy parents — who is the ne plus ultra of obsessed fans. In the frantic crush of Jerry’s post-show stage-door admirers, Masha insinuates herself into the back of Jerry’s limo, her inevitable removal from which creates Rupert’s own opportunity to join Jerry there after heroically fending off the crowd. The scene is reminiscent of Jimmy hustling Francine in the back of the taxi in New York, New York: Rupert’s a fast-talking huckster using what little time he has to make a play for the thing he wants — in this case, his shot at the big time.

The relationship between Rupert and Masha is that of a couple of petulant children vying against each other for the attention, if not the actual affection, of a derelict father. Apart from their respective obsessions with Jerry, Rupert and Masha’s only common trait is that they are both stalkers. The difference being that Masha is predatory, while Rupert is merely persistent. Masha stalks Rupert the same way she stalks Jerry; reconnaissance and surveillance are the only ways she knows how to behave, to pursue (though not to get) what she wants. Rupert on the other hand simply won’t take no for an answer, and though he puts on a show of cheerful understanding in the face of rejection, his tone and his methods gradually turn darker the more he hears no.

A scene in which Masha pursues Jerry on the streets of New York begins comically but quickly turns malevolent. There’s an element of danger here that seems to be Scorsese’s most pointed reason for making this particular movie: as a not-so-subtle comment on the dark side of our obsession with celebrity, like that which incited John Hinckley to shoot President Reagan to get Jodie Foster’s attention after Hinckley became obsessed with Taxi Driver. Masha exudes sexual voraciousness, but she seems just as likely to kill Jerry as to have her way with him.

So this is what the audience is up against: three leads who are neither likable nor sympathetic. It’s as though we’re being dared to root for any one of them as the lesser among evils, but the only remotely admirable person here is the barmaid Rita (Diahnne Abbott), who is even more of a hostage or victim than Jerry is. We feel for her despite our incredulity that a woman this attractive could ever be enthralled by Rupert, whom she apparently hasn’t thought about in the 15 years since they attended high school together. And yet, Rupert apparently knew all along where he could find her. One wonders how long he had been stalking her before he made his approach in the bar, emboldened by his encounter with Jerry earlier that evening.

All of this — these unlikable people, these awkward situations — could have been more interesting if the film had a distinctive visual style, but Scorsese shoots King in a flat documentary style that neither challenges nor entertains the eye and which doesn’t come to fruition until the film’s ending, which plays like the narrated portions of Sidney Lumet’s Network.

Only three shots in the movie stand out as having been designed with any thought or care whatsoever:

  • At 14:30, Masha calls Jerry at home, and as Jerry asks, “How did you get this number?” the TV in the background displays a zoom to another character talking on a telephone who appears to be posing the same question. Even though we haven’t seen Scorsese’s signature shot up to this point, he employs another filmmaker’s use of it in the background to achieve similar dramatic effect.
  • At 34:05, as Rupert introduces himself on the demo tape he’s making for Jerry, we cut to the most consciously stylistic shot of the movie so far: Rupert standing in front of a wall-size photo of the studio audience and the slow pullback as he basks in their static adulation. The shot lasts nearly a minute as it slowly dollies back into a long empty hallway that represents Rupert’s echo chamber, the laughter that only he can hear.
  • At 74:22 comes the film’s best effort at visual comedy: an overhead shot of Rupert taping Jerry to a chair in Masha’s apartment that pays off a couple of minutes later when we pull back from Rupert grooming himself at the mirror to see Jerry completely mummified in tape. Now that was funny.

For a film called The King of Comedy, it lacks the sort of setup-punchline rhythm that one would hope for. Rupert’s various confrontations — whether with Rita or Jerry or Jerry’s support staff — are agonizing to sit through. Rupert drags these encounters past the point when a reasonable person would walk away and devise a new approach. But because he is clearly accustomed to rejection, he digs in, doubles down and tries to win every battle through attrition with his misguided charm offensives.

That said, perhaps the canniest thing about The King of Comedy is that it withholds Rupert’s act from us until the very end of the film. Whether he’s actually funny isn’t relevant to the character or the story, until it is. And when we finally see him perform … he doesn’t suck. Or, at least, his act plays credibly before the kind of audience who would find Jerry Langford funny, with their heartiest laughter coming in response to Rupert’s confession that he could get on the show only by kidnapping Jerry.

Which, ultimately, is how The King of Comedy feels to me: It’s something to be endured, like a kidnapping, as though I’ve been held hostage for two hours waiting for the payoff to arrive. And while I am a great admirer of Scorsese, not even Stockholm Syndrome can make me like this film.

Ba-dum-bump! Thank you. You’ve been a lovely audience. Be sure to tip your waitresses on the way out.
Random observations:

  • The opening credits play over one of my favorite songs of all time: Ray Charles singing “Come Rain or Come Shine.” It’s all downhill from there.
  • We never see Rupert’s mom, voiced by the director’s own mother, the marvelous Catherine Scorsese. One is tempted to imagine that she’s a figment of Rupert’s imagination, a la Norman Bates’ mother in Psycho, and that Rupert is living in the basement of, and being harangued by, a dead woman.
  • At 14:00, Jerry comes home to his stark, cavernous apartment, turns on the TV and briefly watches a scene of Richard Widmark picking pockets on the subway in Sam Fuller’s Pickup on South Street. It’s a reach to assume that this is Scorsese’s commentary about an interloper taking something that doesn’t belong to him — to wit: Rupert literally trying to take Jerry’s life — so probably it’s just a superfluous shout-out to a pretty good crime movie (featuring a terrific performance by Thelma Ritter).
  • At 37:45, the film’s first genuinely funny moment: In an imaginary meeting, after Jerry listens to Rupert’s tape for the first time, Jerry expresses his jealousy for Rupert’s talent by strangling him. The exaggerated slapstick of the moment is the first and perhaps only time the film allows you to feel any warmth or affection for its characters.
  • Even when Jerry is trying to talk his way out of a life-and-death situation, his apology and explanation sound disingenuous and not fully thought-out, as though it’s Rupert’s own half-formed fantasy about how Jerry would try to talk his way out of the kidnapping. Or perhaps Jerry Lewis is just bad at improv.

Coming soon: After Hours (1985)


Written by Shepcat

February 8, 2015 at 3:50 pm

Posted in Continuing Series, Movies

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