Reviews and notes
Scorsese and De Niro have been pushing each other so far for so long that audience polarisation now automatically accompanies the risk of their major-league collaboration. The King of Comedy
guarantees a split even at the level of expectations: it's definitively not a comedy, despite being hilarious; it pays acute homage to Jerry Lewis, while requiring of the man no hint of slapstick infantilism; its uniquely repellent prize nerd is De Niro himself. The excruciating tone is set by an early freeze-frame of fingernails frantically scraping glass. Flinch here, and you're out, because Scorsese never does while detailing fantasist Rupert Pupkin's squirmily obsessive desperation to crash TV's real-time as a stand-up comic on the Carson-modelled Jerry Langford Show. Buttonholing its star (Lewis), then rebounding from brush-offs to hatch a ludicrous kidnap plot, De Niro's Pupkin isn't merely socially inadequate; he's a whole dimension short - happily rehearsing with cardboard cut-outs, choosing the flatness of videoscreen space for his schmucky jester's tilt at being 'king for a night'. Whereas the film itself is all unexpected dimensions and unsettling excesses, with the ambiguous fulfilment of Pupkin's dream frighteningly echoing the news-headline coda of Taxi Driver
. Creepiest movie of the year in every sense, and one of the best.
- Paul Taylor, Time Out Film Guide.
Rupert Pupkin is neat; his three-piece suit is so sharply pressed you could cut your hand on a crease. Rupert Pupkin is agreeable; encountering the boyish befuddlement with which he sometimes camouflages his essentially persistent, not to say obsessive, nature, frosty receptionists melt down to disarmed motherliness - even though he never has an appointment. Rupert Pupkin is helpful; he will give you his latest and best joke, run errands for you, even come bravely to your rescue in a life-threatening situation. In short, Rupert Pupkin is a national menace.
Especially to the celebrated. For Rupert is representative of a new and terrible type, the beamy-faced lunatic who transcends the traditional boundaries of fandom in two frightening ways. Thanks mainly to television and the pseudo intimacy with the famous that it allows, psycopaths like Rupert begin to think their intense feelings for the people they so admiringly study must be reciprocated as soon as the star gets to know them. They are always amazed, and dangerously affronted, when all the psychic energy they have invested in their passion is rewarded not by a long-lost brother's embrace but by a quick call for the security guards. Beyond that, in these fans the impulse to idolize is often transformed into a need to emulate, literally to stand in the famous person's Guccis even if that means ripping him right out of them.
In The King of Comedy
, Rupert not only wants to be Jerry Langford's pal, he wants the nation's leading talk-show host to give him his big break, let him do on the air the stand-up routine he has been polishing these many months in his Hoboken basement. To these ends he stalks Jerry not as an assassin, but as a nudge and a nerd.
The two characters are wonderfully contrasted. Robert De Niro's Rupert has a cheerfully deranged imperviousness to traditional class distinctions and psychological boundary lines that makes you laugh even as it makes you cringe for him. As the object of his desire, Jerry Lewis gives a shrewdly disciplined performance; he has been around, and he knows exactly how to play a star. As Langford, he mimes warmth perfectly until you notice the deadness in the eyes, betraying the veteran public figure's inability to perceive any reality, even a menacing one, that exists outside his own ego. There is one scene, in which Rupert arrives uninvited to spend a weekend at Jerry's country place, that is as good as anything to be found in a modern comedy of ill-manners. For the intruder is more at ease, less guilty, than the intruded upon, who must finally dimly recognize that his privilege is based on the exploitation of a national lunacy Rupert personifies.
Paul Zimmermin's script is full of that kind of fine, mad logic, and Martin Scorsese's edgy style, nervous and bright, fits the subject perfectly. By the time Rupert kidnaps Jerry, demanding air time for his monologue, and making everyone believe that death is his downside, the movie is irresistible, though a crude coda, which makes explicit the social criticism long since implied, is eminently resistible. But if it blunts it cannot spoil a film that will itch on the memory.
- Richard Schickel, TIME, 14 February 1983.
Weblink: Review by MP Bartley, eFilm Critic, March 2005
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