The King of Comedy (1983)

The King of Comedy

  • Though unheralded, this Martin Scorcese/Robert De Niro collaboration is thematically poignant and effective.
  • Not least because it develops an interesting protagonist. Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) is insane and socially awkward, but he is also charismatic and occasionally funny, facts that earn our attention.
  • As does Robert De Niro. Here the actor has a challenging assignment: play a mentally unstable character whose determination is as steadfast as his inability to understand, or hear, those around him. Using high-tone voice inflection and animated gestures, De Niro pulls it off remarkably, so much so that this could be the best performance of his career.
  • The picture’s other actors are just as successful. Jerry Lewis plays Jerry Langford with steady poise and impatience, while Shelley Hack (Cathy) and Diahne Abbot (Rita) anchor the film as Rupert’s  fed up acquaintances.
  • Then there is Sandra Bernhard. She makes Marsha’s stalker craziness disturb us just as much as it does Langford. In so doing, she steals every scene in which she appears, even those opposite De Niro.
  • Scorcese’s direction is exceptional, as well, mostly because he makes intentionally understated choices. His camera doesn’t move as often as it does in other films he directs. His soundtrack and score aren’t as attention grabbing. He never uses voice-over. And so forth.
  • Here Scorcese trusts his actors and Paul Zimmerman’s screenplay to carry the story. Yes, the director frames interesting shots, while also employing terrific sets and locations, but beyond that he cleverly allows the story to speak for itself.
  • Which it most certainly does, largely thanks to a note-perfect resolution, one that shines a disturbingly realistic light on society’s obsession with celebrity.
  • The King of Comedy, in other words, is a terrific movie.
  • If not quite perfect. None of these characters, not even Pupkin, are developed with depth.
  • But it’s a minor flaw because the movie is theme and plot-based, not character-driven.
  • A slightly bigger flaw is that some scenes, especially those between Cathy and Pupkin, risk repetitiveness.
  • Even that’s a minor issue, however, given The King of Comedy’s one hour forty-five minute run time and rapid pacing.
  • Any other flaws are just as incidental, especially when considering how relevant this movie’s satire remains.
  • Individual viewers can decide whether or not The King of Comedy is Martin Scorcese’s best movie. Personally, I’d put it on the short list.
  • Final Grade: A
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17 thoughts on “The King of Comedy (1983)

  1. Very underrated movie from Scorsese and makes me wonder why he never really tackled comedy again after this. Or at least, not as obviously. Good review.

    • I contend nothing. Until Nostra gave it a 9/10 on Mark and Tyson’s De Niro Blogathon, a few months back, I had never heard of it either. And for decent reason. It was not well liked upon its release, apparently. Only through the years have folks started to really value it (now it has 90+% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

      It is the most understated direction I’ve seen from Scorcese. And it is great.

    • I don’t know if it’s that Scorcese is more understated than he usually is, or if it’s the black comedy. Or De Niro’s gripping performance. Or something else. But I can’t stop thinking about this one. I think it’s brilliant, better, by a wide margin, than Taxi Driver or Raging Bull.

      • Better than Taxi Driver or Raging Bull? High praise sir! High praise indeed. I’d have to see it again before I could either confirm or dispute that but I’m liking your positivity for it, regardless. 🙂

      • How about I increase the praise, then? I think De Niro is also better as Pupkin than he is as La Motta. And I think he might be better than he is as Bickle.

      • Well, you know how much I love DeNiro. I can’t see past LaMotta but I certainly will not put up any argument at all on which character is the best. I’m always just glad to hear him getting the praise he deserves. I’ll really need to check this out again soon. It’s been far too long.

    • Mine too, probably. He’s pretty amazing as Travis Bickle, but I think him a touch better here. I like him here more than as Jake La Motta, too. I haven’t seen Cape Fear.

      So the only role that might equal or best this one, in my opinion, is Vito Corleone.

  2. This and Age of Innocence are ones I have not seen by Mr. Scorsese. I am curious now to check this out more then I was before. It’s interesting reading that Sandra Bernhardt of all people has a good role in this. Good review

    • I remember reading your review. In fact, you were the reason I bumped this flick so far up my priority list and saw it as quickly as I did.

      And I’m glad I did. This is very, very good. So. Thank you!

  3. Great review! Definitely underrated Scorsese – along with After Hours too – this is one of my favorites from the director. In fact, this and After Hours rank number 1 and 2 in my book with Taxi Driver at 3.

    • Thank you. Personally, I put this one first, Wolf second and Taxi Driver, probably, third. But I still need to see so much of his work, including After Hours, that my list is not nearly final.

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