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The Danger of Dreams: Review of The King of Comedy (1983)

Everyone is told to chase their dreams. That’s the phrase we use. Chase it. A chase tends to involve singular focus and an unbending will to capture whatever it is you’re chasing. It sounds nice to say chase your dream, but it’s a phrase that can easily be twisted into the rationalization for desperate attempts at fame. We look to the people who’ve achieved success and say that this chasing works, but it’s easy to say that after the fact. What about those helpless saps who couldn’t hack it? Well, they must not have wanted it enough.

Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) is a man who wants it. Specifically, he wants to be a comedian. He idolizes Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), the famous late-night talk show host. Early in the film, he joins a throng outside Langford’s studio. There, he saves Langford from a woman we later learn to be Pupkin’s friend, Masha (Sandra Bernhard). Pupkin shields Langford from the mob just long enough for him to get into his waiting car. Pupkin takes this opportunity to join Langford in the car in the first of what will be many craven attempts to catch his big break.

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With the character of Rupert Pupkin, De Niro is playing a different tone in his performance, but he nails every beat. In a legendary career, I find this to be one of his best performances. He strikes the perfect balance of neediness and unjustified bravado. Pupkin wants a life of celebrity, but he believes his way is the only way to achieve that. And he won’t listen to anyone who tells him otherwise.

The King of Comedy is a genius satire of our modern fascination with celebrity. You don’t think of comedy at first when you think of Martin Scorsese, but here he’s crafted one of the greats. It’s a testament to his legendary status as a director that you could probably pick four or five of his films to top this one. For most other directors, this would be their crowning achievement.

In the car ride, Langford listens to some of Pupkin’s material. He says that Pupkin should call his office to set up an appointment. It’s fairly clear to us as the viewer that Langford is simply trying to get rid of him. This is a random fan who jumped into his car to pitch him material, for goodness sake. Only a mind that is drunk on the prospect of celebrity would take the interaction as a possible break, but Rupert Pupkin has such a mind.

One of my favorite directorial choices in the film is how certain scenes that do not depict the reality of what is happening in this fictional story are interspersed with the real happenings of Pupkin’s life. One such scene is a dream that Pupkin has of a dinner with Langford where Langford gives Pupkin the opportunity to guest host his show for six weeks. There are cues given to us that what we are watching is only real in Pupkin’s mind, but as the film continues, reality and delusion merge even more.

One of the best scenes is a dream Pupkin has of his wedding, which is officiated by his high school principal. There, his principal apologizes for himself and all the others who didn’t believe in Pupkin, who is now a major success. We, right along with Pupkin, have broken with reality and verged into madness. How many of us have thought some variant of that same dream? I’ll show them once I’m successful. These dream sequences showcase why this is a film that certainly grows on you with multiple viewings as you are able to catch more of the cues.

While the film’s cinematography may not be the flashiest aspect of the film, I think the work of Fred Schuler certainly bears mentioning. Joining with the legendary editing skills of frequent Scorsese collaborator, Thelma Schoonmaker, the film’s creative team produce an incredible shot at the beginning of the film as Pupkin is closing the door on Masha when she tries to grab Langford from his car. The lights flash behind Pupkin as he puts his hand on the car window. We can see his eye in between his outstretched fingers. He can see madness in others, but can he turn that eye on himself?

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Throughout the remainder of the film, Pupkin repeatedly visits Langford’s office to try to meet with him. Pupkin is rebuffed at every turn. First, he is met with politeness and seemingly genuine concern for his ambition. Certainly these assistants have met countless others like Pupkin looking to make their big move into the world of show business. But Pupkin persists. At first we may find this admirable. We generally applaud those who never give up on their dream. In fact, we encourage it. That is, until someone like Rupert Pupkin comes along.

Dreams are one of the few areas in life where we retrofit our conclusions. If the person was successful in chasing their dream, well, then we applaud them for whatever they had to do on their way to the top. The other people, however, we look at in scorn as raging lunatics who must come back to reality. So what is someone at the beginning of their dream to do, and at what point does the dreamer become a lunatic?

For Pupkin, that point probably comes about the time he pays an uninvited visit to Langford’s mansion with his female friend, Rita (Diahnne Abbott), whom he is trying to impress. But he will go even further into lunacy from there. We shudder as we watch him kidnap Langford and leave him alone with Masha, who is even more obsessed with Langford than Pupkin, in a convoluted attempt to hijack Langford’s show. But there’s something that we find even more disconcerting.

Pupkin succeeds.

He actually makes it onto the show and is even able to go back to the bar where Rita works and show her that all his crazy scheming paid off. He made it on TV in front of a national audience. Who cares if he’s now facing prison time for kidnapping a famous celebrity? One of the film’s great lines says it best.

“Better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime.”

But the film doesn’t end there. We watch as, after he serves his time in prison, Pupkin ventures back out into a society that remembers him, not as a lunatic, but as the man who did everything he could to achieve fame. He signs a book deal and even lands his own TV show. The curtain opens, and there stands Rupert Pupkin. He hears the applause, and this time it’s coming from a real, live audience – not his own dreams as he talks to a cardboard cutout of Liza Minnelli in his mother’s basement. He smiles and drinks it all in. All his “work” was worth it.

And that’s really the joke at the heart of this film. If we think what Pupkin did was worth it on his path to success, what does that say about us? How far is too far in the pursuit of a dream? And who gets to decide which dreams are worth it and which ones are crazy? If we’re to make those decisions about our own lives, we have to face the fact that we are often not the most realistic arbiter of our own dreams. Yet, to have someone else dictate to us the relevancy of our dreams seems harsh at best. So where does that leave us?

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The film brings about an unsettling feeling in the viewer throughout its runtime. There really is never a moment where we feel comfortable, and that’s kind of the point. I think this film would make an incredible double-feature with the Coen Brothers’ modern classic Inside Llewyn Davis (which was reviewed as part of Filmotomy’s recent 10 Days of Coens series). One is about the opiate of success, the other about the barbiturate of failure.

We all chase the dream in our own way. Along the way we foster a dependence on acceptance that is rarely, if ever, satisfied. Taken to its end, that chase leads to darkness. Or, if you’re Rupert Pupkin, it barrels right through darkness on to the manufactured light of celebrity. We must ask ourselves if we’re content to live in a society that rewards such craven chasing. But first, we must turn the question inward and decide whether we want our own craven chase to be rewarded or not. None of us think we’re a Rupert Pupkin, but neither did Rupert Pupkin.

It’s difficult to decide what reality is when we’re lost inside our own dreams.

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