Thursday, July 02, 2009

the king of comedy

This is a newish feature called Blind Spots that I do occasionally on this blog. It'll give me a chance to write about movies or albums or whatever that I missed during their initial run. I'll write them in the style of Consumables and, ideally, this exercise of going back will help me fill in some gaps. I'll write these whenever the spirit moves me.

The King of Comedy

How can you tell that I'm not a dyed-in-the-wool Martin Scorsese fan? The King of Comedy and The Last Waltz are my two favorite movies of his. It's not that I'm opposed to the four Scorsese films everybody else holds up as his masterpieces -- Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas -- but none of them fully works for me. (Their men-are-men pathos can get a little thick for my taste.) Hence, The Last Waltz and The King of Comedy, which are certainly centered around men as well but aren't quite so enthralled with masculinity that it dominates the proceedings. The Last Waltz pops up enough on cable that I feel pretty confident of its greatness, but I haven't seen The King of Comedy in probably 15 years.
So I re-watched it, curious how it would hold up...

There's nothing like that uncomfortable feeling of knowing that you initially overrated a movie, but, then again, uncomfortable feelings are this movie's reason for being. There are few films that work so hard to make you actively hate all its characters, particularly its thoroughly unpleasant protagonist: Rupert Pupkin (played by Robert De Niro). But where Taxi Driver (another Scorsese film about a loser driven to take matters into his own hands) always felt like a glorification of nihilism, The King of Comedy seems to know full well that these people (even Jerry Lewis's popular talk-shot host) are all miserable wretches you don't want to emulate. And as opposed to another '70s film I find overrated, Network, The King of Comedy continually grounds its satire of television and celebrity in reality -- frankly, I'd be amazed if some lunatic hasn't tried copying this film's kidnapping ploy to get him- or herself on TV.

Still, this movie isn't as perfect as I remembered. De Niro's string of self-loathing performances with Scorsese continues here, and it's hard at points not to wonder what awful thing he did in his personal life that inspired such a willingness to berate himself in front of the camera. With that said, though, he is playing a character who's an acquired taste, and you have to credit the actor for not worrying about making us love him deep down. Plus, I'd forgotten how well De Niro performs Rupert's big monologue -- you believe that this slimy creep really has some (but not all) of the tools to become a stand-up comedian, if only he could learn to self-edit a little.

Sandra Bernhard in the best of circumstances is a dicey proposition, and a little of her goes a long way here. But Jerry Lewis really is fantastic -- without overdoing it, he conveys the sense of a man who got what he wanted in life and is depressed to realize how unfulfilling a realized dream is. He's only slightly less completely miserable than everybody else in the movie.

And then there's the ending. I'm in the camp that believes that everything after Rupert's arrest at the bar is a fantasy -- it has to be, right? No, in fact it doesn't have to be, which is one of the movie's great strengths -- it makes the case that lowlife freaks become famous all the time for the weirdest of reasons. Just about nothing in Network feels believable in 2009, but The King of Comedy still feels ahead of the curve.