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. Continue reading