Is The King of Comedy the best out of all of Martin Scorsese’s films? I wouldn’t know: it and Hugo are the only films of his that I’ve actually seen (I do plan to see way more at some point, obviously). It does, however, have to be among his most restrained, low-key, and strangely touching films ever. Maybe I was taken a little off-guard at the film’s slowness at first, but once I settled into it, I was stunned at how much it, as well as everything else about the film, worked for me.
The King of Comedy stars Robert De Niro as Rubert Pupkin, an aspiring stand-up comedian who dreams of sharing the spotlight with his idol, jaded talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis, turning in a much more serious performance than his earlier work). The colliding of their different lives, coupled with Pubkin’s determination to get to the top, no matter what, will lead to an event that will change Pubkin forever.
Perhaps the most curious thing about this film is that despite the title, it isn’t really a comedy at all. If it is, it would have to be a verydark and bitter one. Not dark and bitter enough to violate the PG rating (surprising for Scorsese, but what part of this director isn’t?), but still pretty dark and bitter nevertheless. And granted, I can see how that would turn audiences off at first. I can see why that would cause Roger Ebert, one of the most famous film critics ever, to be very conflicted after first watching it.
Most of all, though, I can see why it would cause The King of Comedy to be championed as a masterpiece decades after it was released, for all its subversive darkness and cynicism only benefits the “arid, painful, wounded” (as Mr. Ebert himself put it) story at its center. Rubert Pubkin is a sociopath, but he’s probably one of the most surprisingly sympathetic (and, believe it or not, even relatable) ones I’ve ever seen. This poor guy faces so much rejection in his life, even from Langford, that you really find yourself rooting for him, even when he’s resorting to kidnapping and blackmail in order to get a top spot on Langford’s show.
And indeed, it’s the film’s moral gray area that makes it special. With the exception of the fantastic Parasite, not many films that I’ve seen recently leave you uncertain over who to really root for, and judging by how much money The King of Comedy lost during its initial theatrical run (it only made $2.5 million against a $19 million budget), it’s not hard to see why. That doesn’t make it any less of a shame, but still.
Even if you yourself couldn’t take it, it’s hard to deny how powerful the film is—powerful as both a grim character study (no wonder last year’s Joker apparently looted so much from it) and a subtle, still-relevant satire of the entertainment industry that has only gotten more frightening with age. See it now before it seems almost tame in its approach.