If Martin Scorsese is relatively restrained behind the camera for The King of Comedy, that’s likely because he knows that every scene between Jerry Lewis—as wildly famous but deeply miserable talk-show host Jerry Langford—and Robert De Niro—as the aspiring comic and obsessive fan who kidnaps him—is so awkwardly electric that the movie needs no aesthetic elaboration. From their first interaction (in which De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin “saves” Jerry from a more obvious stalker, played by a very funny Sandra Bernhard) to their final confrontation, each interchange is a delicately comic display of faux politeness and passive aggression (as well as one instance of actual throttling). It’s cringe comedy of the highest order.
The question hanging over much of The King of Comedy is: just how deluded is Rupert, both about his relationship with Langford and the quality of his own talent? In the basement of the house he shares with his mother, Rupert has recreated a talk-show set, complete with cardboard figures of Langford and guest Liza Minnelli. All alone down there, he rehearses for the appearance he’s sure he’ll make one day on Langford’s show. Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker pull some nice tricks during a sequence that alternates between Rupert’s pretend, basement conversation with Jerry and shots of his imagined vision of what that would look like, but another, simpler shot even better captures the depth of his delusion: having given Langford’s office a public phone number as his own business line, Rupert clings to the pay phone’s receiver on a busy New York street corner, desperately trying to keep people from using it, futilely expecting the phone to ring at any time.
As Rupert, De Niro is funny, but never in a way that makes it seems as if he’s in on the joke, as if he knows that Rupert is a nutjob. Rather, he’s burrowed into the role, and ultimately into the pain that we know must be behind Rupert’s life of denial. (Indeed, in the climax, when we finally get to see Rupert’s act, it unfolds as a collection of bad jokes about his brutal childhood.) Comedians often mine their pain for laughs; the great tragedy of Rupert Pupkin is that he’s not funny.
As for Lewis, he’s mesmerizing as an oily, exhausted celebrity who delivers jokes as if he’s paying a tax. A life of fame has worn on him, though not to the point that he’s willing to give it up. Lewis has a number of withering line readings, but his best moments might be after he’s been kidnapped by Rupert and Bernhard’s stalker, the latter of whom has amorous plans for him. Forced at gunpoint to wear a sweater that she’s knitted, Lewis doesn’t move a muscle, but adopts the face of someone waiting in line at the DMV.
The King of Comedy may not feel like vintage Scorsese, but with De Niro at its center it recalls Taxi Driver, one of his masterworks. De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin is as deranged as Travis Bickle, but with an inverse disposition. Bickle sees a world that deserves to burn. Pupkin thinks the world shines—because he’s the star that illumines it.