Update mid-2018: I never fully concur with the writing in these early reviews, but I still agree with my score on this one, perhaps Scorsese’s best – yes, you read that right – and certainly De Niro’s most incisive work, revealing basically everything about a man whose most frightening feature is how simultaneously transparent and opaque he is, how incapable of reflection he is and how this makes him somehow perversely both a blank slate and a black hole. Their gruesomely innocent vision is of a cracked-mirror protagonist, a figure who gives us nothing and everything and who steadfastly refuses to grow precisely because he’s already reached a social apex in his mind. Yes, Raging Bull visualizes masculinity and Americana as unfettered, unmediated attack dogs. But King of Comedy masks its murderous masculinity in the disarmingly gentile visage of male self-victimization, making it a uniquely singular dissection of its moment, our moment, and “nice-guy” masculinity, superficially domesticated but all the more sinister for it, in America. It’s far easier, but no less valid, to decode Travis Bickle’s messianic aspirations as an interrogation of American masculinity in Koch-era New York, but Pupkin is equally deluded, and more presciently frightening for his ostensible innocence.
The King of Comedy is famously Martin Scorsese’s misunderstood picture, the one that had the great misfortune of being a follow-up to a film that did nothing more significant than simply be the best work of the 1980s while capturing like no other film the spirit of the 1970s all in one fell swoop. In other words: a follow-up to Raging Bull. No big deal. And if that wasn’t enough, if for no other reason than to fulfill his masochistic desire to invite negative comparisons to his other films, Scorsese went and made The King of Comedy with that previous genre defining film’s star too. Audiences didn’t take to the film, although it has recently been re-evaluated by critics, if not the movie-going public. Perhaps audiences were right to shun it – it’s creepy, unnerving, and it directly mocks the entire entertainment-audience relationship. In its own way, it’s as nihilist as any film the director ever made. Only, unlike his crime films (although this, truly, is a crime film if ever there was one), The King of Comedy was marketed as, and masquerades as, a loopy, giddy comedy. It’s a profoundly uncomfortable, unfathomable film. At least superficially, it’s perhaps the director’s lightest production (excepting maybe the recent Hugo), the kind we’re supposed to get into and fall in love with for its quirky amusements and revelatory lunacy. Turns out Scorsese had something else in mind.
The King of Comedy is the story of Rubert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), a down-on-his-luck but immeasurably self-confident stand-up comedian looking for a chance at the big leagues. Really, he just wants attention, to be noticed. We’re meant to like the guy initially. Not only are we meant to, but Scorsese knows we will. He’s the kind of quirky, left-field underdog that emerged in popularity in the early 80’s and has only become more and more popular since then. When he doesn’t get what he wants, however, Pupkin decides to get attention in his own way: to kidnap the Johnny Carson-like head of show he wants to appear on, Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) and make his way onto the show unimpeded.
There’s something deliriously naughty about what Scorsese does here. He doesn’t so much wind us up to like Pupkin as assume we will, and he’s completely right. He doesn’t have to concentrate on making us like him, and all the while we come to realize he was actually concentrating on manipulating us, implicating us, and scaring us by setting up a character who we come to later see, even in his early scenes, as fundamentally creepy. It’s especially true because Scorsese, usually a master of style, here sits back and lets Pupkin do the talking. This is, after all, his show. Isn’t that what he wanted? To have us in the palms of his hands laughing with him, enjoying his success. Well that’s exactly what De Niro’s too-upbeat Pupkin does for most of the film. He has us, and when we come to realize what he’s willing to do to get us – and in fact, that he doesn’t even think there’s anything wrong with what he’s doing – we’re unnerved at not only him but how wrapped up we got in his success. Thus, Scorsese leaves us alone, lets us spend time with Pupkin, has the camera linger on him for deeply uncomfortable and penetrating time periods, and slowly but surely has us want to move to the other end of the couch.
Scorsese’s masterstroke, however, is in constructing Pupkin as a singular figure from the very beginning. Pupkin doesn’t suffer from afflicted screenwriter’s disease. Scorsese nor his writer Paul Zimmerman ( more famous as a film critic than a screenwriter) don’t hold back Pupkin’s character from us – he doesn’t reveal himself midway through the film to be a psychopath. They don’t hide information from us. It’s all there to begin with, the charm, the sweetness, the confidence, the inability to accept loss or read social cues. It is precisely his giddy overconfidence that makes us fall in love with him, and precisely the same overconfidence which makes us turn our heads at ourselves for falling for him. We don’t so much learn more about Pupkin as realize we knew it all along but were too afraid to admit it.
Scorsese’s crowning achievement is the stand-up special. Oh yes, we get it, and it’s shockingly accurate to what we’d expect from the many dime-a-dozen comedians who go up on TV stages for their one shot, likely to be never heard from again. It’s neither unfunny nor rapturously gut-busting – there are plenty of chuckles to be had, some from legitimate jokes. His humor isn’t a façade – it’s genuine, and that scares us. Scorsese, for all his subversion of public entertainment, the audience’s gaze, and stardom, doesn’t want to make out his main character to be a hack. He knows that Pupkin, for all his carefully manicured efforts to exude public appeal and his own personal giddiness – his subversion of his private self into a public persona that now eclipses any private self – would be at least somewhat funny on stage. Because the film isn’t out to mock this one character – it’s aiming at an identity, the notion of the public persona – and it knows that the same things which make people successful in public may make them disfigured, standoffish, scary people in private. Scorsese needs to make Pupkin actually funny. If he wasn’t, we would just write him off as a hack, a failure at trying to be a public figure. For the film to work, when he wanders onto the stage he needs to act, look, and perform exactly like a real middle-of-the-road stand-up comedian – mildly amusing, but not meaningfully brilliant. Because Pupkin’s performance is exactly like dozens of other comedians we may have seen, it makes us question what it means when we laugh at many other so-called “kings of comedy” trying to stake their claim in public.
Within, Scorsese’s film is not an anti-comedy, but an anti-character study, a film that sits back and has us fall in love with a character and then rubs our faces in it. Pupkin never thinks of what he’s doing as wrong. He just wants a little attention, and we want him to get it, so much so that we’re even willing to let him hold his hostage just a few minutes more in hopes of giving him a little of the limelight he so desperately craves (and in another smart decision, Langford isn’t a nice guy either – he’s instantly smarmy and unlikable and far less sympathetic than Pupkin is). Pupkin never intends to physically harm him, and his happiness and giddiness are genuine while Langford’s are put-on show business lies. His genuine personality mirrors the kind of quirky offbeat underdog we’ve come to love in film after film, the kind of film where a character inevitably must rise to the top and overcome his/her personal demons because, well, what else would happen in a Hollywood film? Here, though, the strengths of Pupkin’s character are inseparable from the demons.
Even more than the caustic, abrasive Raging Bull, this is about as unnerving a character study as can be found in Scorsese’s catalogue. Raging Bull, a better film in many other ways, deviates openly and explicitly from the norms of a character study structurally and stylistically. But The King of Comedy does something scarier and more subversive. It strangles the notion of a character study not by challenging the form of a character study, but by devoting every fiber of its being to that form: this is a stinging indictment of character studies for precisely the same reasons every other film within the form works. That, my friends, is about as transgressive a commentary on the necessary artifice of filmmaking – the notion of constructing an artificial narrative to contain a certain emotional goal, when in fact the same beats can take a radically different meaning in a different context – as you’ll find.