''Better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime.''
Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro successfully teamed up once again in what probably was their most different and unique collaboration together. It is a wonderful and unsettling film with a great performance from Robert De Niro. I feel sorry for younger audiences who have only seen his recent work, because they are missing out on one of the best actors during the 80's and 90's. Here, De Niro plays a mentally unstable character who is obsessed with becoming famous. I don't know if our culture was so obsessed with celebrity and fame during the 80's as they are now, but The King of Comedy is very much prescient today and that is one of the reasons why it still speaks to its audience more than 30 years after its release. It isn't an easy watch, especially if you are expecting a Scorsese film like Goodfellas, but it is equally effective. The King of Comedy plays out as an edgy cultural satire and despite feeling unsettled by some of the characters motivations I still was engaged with the story. This is a unique dark comedy because it is much more restrained than others, and it isn't a comedy that will have you laughing throughout the movie, but it works in a creepy and unsettling way thanks to Scorsese's direction and De Niro's inspired performance.
This satire of our celebrity obsessed society was written by Paul D. Zimmerman and it stars Robert De Niro as an aspiring comedian who is obsessed with becoming famous. We first see Rupert Pupkin hanging around a crowd of fans outside a local TV studio where Jerry Langford's (Jerry Lewis) comedy show is taped. Jerry is greeted by his fans as he exits the show and heads for his limo, but an obsessed stalker named Masha (Sandra Bernhard) awaits for him hidden in his car. In the midst of all the turmoil, Rupert separates Jerry from Masha and the rest of the crowd. He then seizes his opportunity and ends up alone with Jerry in his limo distancing himself from the rest of the crowd who in his opinion are simply autograph hounds. Rupert then introduces himself and tells Jerry that he is an aspiring comedian and wants him to invite him to his show because he believes he has potential. In order to get rid of him Jerry politely gives him some advice and tells Rupert to send a tape of his jokes to his assistant, Cathy Long (Shelley Hack), but he recommends he start at the bottom and begin performing in small local shows. Rupert is so fixated with himself and his desire to become famous that he has a difficult time trying to separate what is real and what is fantasy. Back home he begins fantasizing about his conversation with Jerry, and now that he has gotten this far he won't stop until he gets his shot at fame.
Rupert isn't an easy character to root for considering he only cares about himself and can't take no for an answer. His presence unsettles everyone around him just like it does with us as we watch him invite himself to Jerry's country home or as he insists on meeting with him in his studio. Scorsese does a great job with this film creating this unsettling and disturbing atmosphere. Jerry Lewis gives a much more restrained performance and it is very different from the quirky roles we've seen him play before. In a way he's just playing himself and that is why he is so believable in his Johnny Carson like role. Sandra Bernhard's performance divided critics as some considered it to be over the top, but I thought she was great considering this is a satire of our culture's obsession with celebrities and fame. I thought the ending of this film was also perfect and very poignant. There are two ways you can read into the ending (since Rupert fantasizes so much it is hard to separate that from reality) but if it really played out the way it's presented at the end I thought it was a powerful critique of how we as a culture value success and fame over morality. It was a very satisfying ending and I really enjoyed this film.