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.