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The King of Comedy
1983 - PG - 101 Mins.
Director: Martin Scorsese
Producer: Arnon Milchan
Written By: Paul D. Zimmermann
Starring: Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis, Sandra Bernhard, Tony Randall, Ed Herlihy
Review by: John Ulmer

This is a hell of a lot better than one of your Telathons Jerry.
"Better to be king for a night than a schmuck for a lifetime."

As Travis Bickle's universally known line of dialogue from "Taxi Driver" has a deep meaning ("Are you talkin' to me? Well I'm the only one here"), Rupert Pupkin's closing speech of his first-ever standup comedy routine in "The King of Comedy" finalizes the entire meaning of the film, wrapping it up in one short sentence. Is it better to have one great day versus nothing? Do the ends justify the means? Two questions all of us ask ourselves at one point of time in our life.

The comparisons to Travis Bickle seem stronger on paper than they do in the film. The most striking resemblance between the two stories is that both contain the central theme of a man snapping and doing something apparently crazy. Both films star Robert De Niro, and both are directed by Martin Scorsese, which makes for an interesting discussion of relation. Some may even say that it's a sequel in sorts.

Rupert Pupkin (De Niro) is a lonely man whose daily life and routines consist around one man: Jerry Langford, a talk show host and comedian who is followed by a horde of rabid fans, including Masha (Sandra Bernhard), a fan to rival Pupkin, who admits that he has waited nine hours at a time outside Jerry's recording studio to catch a glimpse of him as he is shoved into limos by fancy bodyguards.

Rupert is given a rare opportunity to speak to Jerry one day as he saves him from Masha, who assaulted Jerry with kisses and hugs. It is as they drive away together and Rupert talks to Jerry that he proposes his long-time dream, which is to appear on Jerry's show as an aspiring standup comic. Of course, he's had no experience. But Rupert swears he would be great on stage -- he's studied Jerry for years and knows timing.

Langford gets these psychos all the time, but he doesn't realize just how strong a fan Rupert is until he shows up at his private home with suitcases and a girl claiming to have been invited. "I made a mistake," Rupert says. "So did Hitler," Jerry barks.

Jerry Lewis plays Jerry Langford in a self-referential (and very unflattering) role. It's his finest to date. The guy is a scumbag who barely tolerates fans and is cruel. Lewis has lost his manic, energetic, annoying comedy rituals seen in films such as "The Nutty Professor" and has moved on to real acting that demands true skill. Gone are the squeaky voice and the crossed eyes. Here is perhaps the wretched soul who really exists behind Jerry Lewis, as we know him.

All of us exaggerate, but Rupert does so to an extreme. After being shoved out of Jerry's limo the night of their confrontation with an invitation to call Jerry's secretary to schedule a meeting, Rupert shows up at Jerry's office claiming to have an appointment. "Is Jerry expecting you?" he is asked by a clerk. "Yes, I don't think so," Rupert says.

Jerry and his workers, who deny his taped comedy routine that we never hear until the end, shun Rupert. "Oh, I see, this is what happens to people like you from all of this!" Rupert yells at Jerry. "No," he replies. "I've always been like this."

So Rupert breaks down and kidnaps Jerry with the help of Masha, demanding a spot on his TV show as a ransom payment. He commands that he will be referenced to as "The King of Comedy" (hence the title), and to further demonstrate the innocence of Rupert's character, when he shows up, he fails to see the gravity of the offence he has just committed.

Rupert is twisted, as you may have guessed by now, but not in a Travis Bickle kind of way. He doesn't see the bad in the world -- he's oblivious to it. "You're so naive!" Masha tells him. I wouldn't be surprised if he took it as a compliment.

Rupert lives in complete isolation, kept locked up with his mother and living his life by what he says on TV. His dialogue and mannerisms are all clich├ęd -- he says the kind of stuff one would expect a poorly written film to feature. When he tries to impress a female bartender, and when he tries to make small talk with Jerry, he frightens both individuals (similar to Travis Bickle frightening Senator Palantine and the Secret Service Agent).

Rupert daydreams a lot, pretending to be a guest on Jerry's show and fighting off requests to host the show for six weeks. It's when the film cuts back and forth between a fancy restaurant and Rupert's mother's basement, with her yelling at him to shut up, that we realize how strange -- and yet how similar to all of us -- he really is.

But De Niro isn't as disturbed as Travis, he isn't as cynical as Noodles, he isn't as observant as Vito Corleone, he isn't as tough as Jack Byrnes, and he isn't as brutal as Jake LaMotta. In "The King of Comedy," arguably one of his most human and uplifting roles, he switches from the normal into two new territories. One, is comedy. Two, is a "happy role," and by that I mean that Rupert Pupkin is a cheery, naive, gung-ho fellow, as eager to please as a puppy (perhaps his last name, PUPkin, isn't coincidental). This is simply a milestone De Niro performance, and it blew me away. I have not seen De Niro in this type of role before "The King of Comedy," and not since, for that matter.

The ending is essentially close to "Taxi Driver," too -- is it all a delusion? I honestly don't think so. I don't think it was really intended to be. Some films are meant to be interpreted ("Taxi Driver"). And some just aren't. In a dark comedy like this, sometimes you just have to take things at face value.

The film essentially flopped upon its release in 1983, bringing in only $2,500,000 on a $20,000,000 budget. It has yet to find a strong cult following such as films like "Austin Powers" that brought in little in theaters and lots on video. But any fan of Scorsese and De Niro's work will adore "The King of Comedy." And it's the only De Niro/Scorsese flick that can be recommended to families.

As Rupert takes the stage at the end of the film, his entire dreams have been laid forth in front of him and he takes them by the throat. It is in that truly startling moment we've all been waiting for when we learn that Rupert is not only funny, but pretty darn talented. If the movie had used Rupert's life-long dreams as the butt end of a joke, if he had turned out to be an absolutely horrid comedian (which is what I honestly thought would happen), the film would have little effect. But as a filmgoer and critic, it ranks as one of the most surprising scenes I have ever laid eyes on.
Movie Guru Rating
A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic.
  5 out of 5 stars

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