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The King of Comedy

Fox Home Video

Starring Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis, and Sandra Bernhard

Written by Paul Zimmerman
Directed by Martin Scorsese

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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                    

Martin Scorsese is usually credited with contributing three of the great dramas of the so-called "Second Golden Age of Cinema," with Mean Streets (1974), Taxi Driver (1976), and his most celebrated film, the fierce boxing drama Raging Bull (1980). After that, the manic and inventive auteur is associated with his controversial depiction of The Last Temptation of Christ (1987) and his ballyhooed "return-to-form" with the flashy gangster epic Goodfellas (1990). While all of these remarkable milestones are deserving of ample praise, Scorsese was also behind two of the best and most cruelly overlooked dark comedies of the 1980s: After Hours (1985) and The King of Comedy (1982).

Considered a stunning flop upon its release, The King of Comedy was perhaps too great a reversal from the stark brutality of Raging Bull. Fans of the director's violent Catholic street allegories were confronted with favorite star Robert De Niro — formerly a street punk, a killer, a self-loathing brute — as a mustachioed schlub desperate to crack the flat, pastel world of TV comedy. And instead of Harvey Keitel playing opposite, there's, uh, Jerry Lewis. Jerry Lewis? The drastic (if superficial) departure from familiar territory resulted in flaccid box office and a lukewarm response from critics already lining up to declare the revelatory Raging Bull as the best film of the new decade.

In a way, the detractors were right: This isn't Travis Bickle, mohawked cabbie avenger. It's Travis Bickle wearing white loafers in his mother's basement. The King of Comedy is not so much a departure from the likes of Taxi Driver as it is a different (and funnier) look at the same sad isolations and desperations present in the director's earlier work.

De Niro stars as Rupert Pupkin, a hapless autograph-seeker bordering on celebrity stalker. Also a wannabe comedian, Pupkin is devoted to the study of Johnny Carsonesque talk show funnyman Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) and seizes a chance meeting with his idol to pitch his standup act. Langford dismisses him with a polite "call my office" with no idea of the determination with which Pupkin plans to follow up the dubious invitation.

Although The King of Comedy features the bright and inviting aesthetics of a typical comedy, the movie's laughs are equaled if not outweighed by simultaneous cringes of pain. Pupkin is every bit the self-obsessed and self-loathing loner as Travis Bickle or Jake LaMotta, he simply dresses funnier and is far more inept at his chosen mode of expression, draping his impotence in the potent comedy of pathos.

While the idea of De Niro playing a swaggerless geek at first sounds like deranged miscasting, he pulls it off beautifully by playing it straight, unlike his more recent comic performances. Lewis also is excellent as a famous TV personality who is patient with his fans but who can also turn his gift for humor into withering rebuke at a snap. Sandra Bernhard stands out in her first major film role as Rupert's erratic fellow stalker, Masha.

Written by Paul Zimmerman, The King of Comedy shares with Paddy Chayefsky's incredible 1976 drama Network an incisive and prophetic vision of popular media. However, where Network was more fearsomely concerned with nefarious influences affecting news content, The King of Comedy sniffs out a desperate sense of entitlement amongst entertainment hopefuls that is on almost 24-hour display in current reality-based programming schedules.

*          *          *

The King of Comedy looks great on Fox's DVD edition in a pretty clean anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with only a few flecks of source wear, and it sounds fine in both the Dolby 2.0 Surround and DD mono audio mixes. Features include:

— Gregory P. Dorr

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