film 4 of 7

The King of Comedy

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jun 10, 2015

I’m looking closely. It’s seeming obvious that this is a contemplation of, a variation on themes explored in Taxi Driver (Schrader/Scorcese, 1976). More to the point, it seems quite pointedly to be about John Lennon and Mark David Chapman. We’re spared the terrible conclusion of that real story, but it’s not necessarily a comfort, or that much of an improvement.

Do show-biz stories tire you at times? They can be so insular, so self-regarding, so oblivious. Who cares?! Well, that can be and that has been the case. But show-biz stories can also be parables, with a particular show-biz setting standing effectively in for our own experiences, and the challenges that rise up around most everybody.

So, here. Our protagonists—the term doesn’t mean good guy, but simply the character/s around whom plot revolves—are a pretty pathetic, deluded bunch. They’re funny, actually, even very funny. If you want. But this is a very particular, mordant kind of comedy. All around are unobtainable objectives, which aren’t worth attaining anyway—it’s a pretty bleak view. Aburdity. (Martin Esselin, 1961.) Cruelty, even! (Antonin Artaud, in a collection dated 1938 [note particularly the title essay].)

In addition to pathetic and deluded, The King of Comedy gives us glimpses of a gracious and abundant alternative, a glimpse of privilege and influence, success and happiness. Or, just as much, it gives us its protagonists’ sense of those things. Which is, again, pathetic and deluded. The ambiguous and ironic ending notwithstanding, these glimpses leave our protagonistic underlings even more isolated and hopeless than usual, or than they were before. Thus, the plot. Look more closely. It’s Taxi Driver!

Note: Sandra Bernhard!

Still, there’s a little bit of brightness here. It’s a terrible world, but the film’s homages—Jerry!—are sincere and loving. (Lewis’s long walk down that New York street is a complete Valentine. Really lovely. Also, watch that aborted hug in Rupert’s talk show fantasy. A genius, still!) Further, this infernal vision is, quite unusually for this director, couched in PG terms. That means you can watch it with your kids!

The fantasy sequences—Mom!—are really funny, and they’re also where the film’s madness is most chillingly centered. These superb subjective/fantasy sequences, with their disorienting editing strategies that look back to Taxi Driver or maybe Wenders’ The American Friend (1977), also prefigure Shutter Island! Which is much nicer than this. Scorch!