Robin’s Underrated Gems: The King of Comedy (1983)

Well, since I re-watched the movie this weekend and it is today’s featured trailer on one of my favourite websites, “Trailers From Hell”, I’d figure I’d make The King of Comedy the first pick for my brand new column here, “Robin’s Underrated Gems”. I intend to use this blog to pay tribute to some of my favourite movies that most people I know have never even heard of, let alone seen. Anyway, The King of Comedy is easily the most underrated film in Martin Scorsese’s long and storied career. It certainly has its fair share of devoted fans, but it’s never been recognized as one of his all-time greatest films since I’m sure it succeeds at alienating a lot of its viewers. It’s easy to admire this film without actually liking it. Roger Ebert is one of the biggest Martin Scorsese fans there is, but he begrudgingly gave The King of Comedy what may be the most negative three-star review he’s ever written.

Now, personally, I think Ebert was really overstating things when he called the film “painful” and “unpleasant”. It certainly deals with a lot of painful and unpleasant themes, but it is not a painful or unpleasant viewing experience, probably because it very well-made, sharply written and brilliantly acted. Even though it’s a pretty dark comedy at heart and definitely an acquired taste, it is frequently very funny. The film is also way ahead of its time when it comes to the dealing the issues of celebrity obsession and the desire for name. Robert DeNiro’s character, Rupert Pupkin (one of the all-time great character names), is an incredibly untalented comedian who will do ANYTHING to become a famous TV star, and the fact of the matter is that in this era of reality TV, people even less talented that Rupert ARE huge stars today!

Anyway, Robert De Niro’s portrayal of Rupert Pupkin is definitely the most underrated performance of his career as he does a masterful job with a role that’s extremely difficult to pull off. Rupert is a delusional 34-year old loser who still lives in his mom’s basement and wants to be famous so badly that he acts out fantasy scenarios with cardboard cutouts, pretending to be the host of his own talk show. He’s one of those infuriating people that we’ve all encountered who just does not “get it” and only hears what he wants to hear, and after one brief meeting with famous talk show host Jerry Langford (played by Jerry Lewis), becomes convinced that the two of them are best friends. Rupert is a person who would be absolutely UNBEARABLE to be around in real life, but De Niro plays him so well that the viewer is still interested in watching him. The movie’s standout sequence involves Rupert showing up unannounced at Jerry’s house with his girlfriend and acting completely oblivious to how angry Jerry is at him. The whole thing is masterfully directed, acted and written, and has to be one of the most brilliantly awkward and uncomfortable scenes in all of cinema. Jerry Lewis is surprisingly terrific in this film, as his portrayal of Jerry Langford is a case study of a celebrity who’s been completely burnt out by his obsessive fans. While Lewis has always been famous for his very broad style of comedy, many of his scenes in The King of Comedy give him very little dialogue and are built entirely on his reaction shots. Jerry’s looks of pure disgust and bottled-up rage over Rupert’s delusional obsession with him provide some of the movie’s biggest laughs.

Anyway, once Rupert finally gets the point that Jerry is not his friend, he and his obsessive stalker sidekick, Masha (played quite memorably by Sandra Bernhard) decide to kidnap Jerry and threaten to kill him unless Rupert’s given a chance to perform his stand-up routine on Jerry’s show. It all leads to a very cynical, unexpected ending that probably seemed very absurd in 1983, but is too far from reality these days. Many audiences may not have known what to make of The King of Comedy when it originally came out, but it has only gotten better with age. It’s definitely a must-see for Scorsese and De Niro fans who may not even know that this underrated gem exists. Its ideas about celebrity culture are more relevant than ever and the words at the end Rupert Pupkin’s comedic monologue definitely ring true: “Better to be a king for a night than schumuck for a lifetime”.

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