Out of all the handful of financial flops Martin Scorsese has directed (New York, New York, the underrated Kundun and Bringing Out the Dead), this is easily the least-deserving. Deeply misunderstood when it first came out, audiences in the early 80s just didn’t quite know what to make of it – by today’s standards, with the notion of celebrity cheapened to the point of shallow absurdity, it’s scarily prescient and way ahead of its time. It tackles the peculiar way famous people are practically worshipped, and the complicity of the media in promoting and perpetuating this unhealthy behaviour.

One of the first things it nails from the off is how particularly passionate fans actually have an odd mixture of love and hate in them. In one early scene, a fan desperate to get Jerry Langford’s autograph (Jerry Lewis here, essentially playing himself with a fascinating sense of verisimilitude) is gushing with praise initially, but as soon as she is turned down she spins on a sixpence and screams “I hope you get cancer” – such is the hairline tightrope that obsessive behaviour like that walks across.

The rest of the film treads a similar path – Rupert Pupkin is kind of funny, and kind of terrifying. You’re never quite sure whether to laugh at him as some kind of harmless crackpot, or to be absolutely terrified at what this unhinged man might do. The lines get blurred between entertainment and horror, just as they blur between reality and fantasy throughout – Pupkin has several scenes that clearly only exist in his imagination, and the finale is ambiguous as to whether it does or not. Perhaps such ambivalence led to audiences turning away from it – all too often this window into a disturbing world and mentality becomes a rather uncomfortable mirror.

THE KING OF COMEDY
Fascinating satire on the cult of celebrity, especially by today's standards9
Maintaining an excruciating balance between comedy and unpleasantness7
Making it clear how the media is just as culpable in all this8
Treading similar themes to Taxi Driver, with much of the same personnel7
Criminally ignored when it first came out, so track it down and watch it9
Bechdel Test Passes
  • Features more than one named female character
Bechdel Test Failures
  • None of the female characters talk to each other
8Overall Score

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