Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro must be the most celebrated director/star collaborators in recent American film history. Together they have produced some of the most powerful films of the last several decades--MEAN STREETS, TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL, GOODFELLAS--but here they tried
something a little different and the result is a chilling black comedy.
Robert De Niro is tragic, goofy and crazy as Rupert Pupkin, a grown man working as a messenger and living in his parents' basement. (Scorsese's own mother is the off-screen voice of the unseen Mrs. Pupkin.) Pupkin is a Times Square hangabout who dogs celebrities for autographs but imagines himself
the greatest comic in the world, patterning himself on his hero, funnyman talk-show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis in a part written for the erstwhile King of Late Night, Johnny Carson). His dream is that he will appear on Langford's show, perform his comedy routine, and then take his rightful
place among the stars. He'll have none of that nonsense about learning his craft and working his way up the ladder of success; he wants it now.
At the beginning of the film, Pupkin ingratiates himself with Langford by helping him fend off some particularly manic autograph seekers. Slipping into the car with Langford, he introduces himself as a yet-undiscovered great comedian who has written some terrific material. Initially Langford
encourages him, but eventually Pupkin becomes a major nuisance. At first he hangs around the network offices for a followup meeting until he must be physically thrown out. Eventually he works up to calling on Mr. Langford at his fabulous country retreat. He resorts, at last, to even more drastic
measures to get his big break on television.
De Niro gives a miraculous character performance, much different from the intense brooding loners for which he is renowned. He seems to disappear into this oddball, somewhat repulsive, but ultimately rather touching character. Sandra Bernhard, in her film debut, is nearly as memorable as Rupert's
outrageous partner in crime. As a thoroughly demented, poor little rich girl who yearns to physically possess her favorite celebrity, Bernhard is simultaneously frightening, unconventionally sexy and very funny. THE KING OF COMEDY was a huge flop upon its release. Let's hope that future
generations will hail it as the classic it truly is.
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