Martin Scorsese is probably a master at bringing a troubled state of mind to life on screen. Be it Travis, in “Taxi Driver” or the violent maniac gangster played by Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, there is always a zone that he realizes and makes it constant throughout. We see how these characters lose it and how that alters the plot of the film to make it what it is. “The King of Comedy” is somewhat similar to “Taxi Driver” in that sense but a tad bit lighter, although it manages to expound a horror, especially with the performance of De Niro, going out of the stadium and keeping you on edge throughout.
“The King of Comedy” delves into star worship and obsession that turns deadly. Rupert Pupkin is an aspiring stand-up comic who wants to make it big and is a follower of famous comedian Jerry Langford. After his show one night, he forces his way into his car and talks him through, giving him a chance on his show. Jerry is appalled and, to get rid of him, he asks him to come to his office the next day and meet with his secretary. Rupert is in the seventh sky. He boils up an entirely different situation in his head and connects everything in the wrong manner. He thinks that Jerry respects him and considers him a friend, and imagines an entire lunch scene with him. Living alone with his mother, he acts out scenarios all day. His house is filled with palanquins of different famous people with whom he interacts day and night, even getting the scolds of his mother on occasions. We don’t get to see the mother ever but just hear her voice, and towards the end, in his set, Rupert talks briefly about his story, and something about it tells us that it isn’t made up. In the entire film, we never get to see his comedic style or if he has a good sense of humor. At one point at his home, in a scene where we really get into his troubled mind, we see him creating an entire show at his home. He invites himself and plays multiple characters. Then, his chance comes to perform his set. We are eager to see if he really is a good shot. But we just hear a rumbling of voices as he also starts audio of audience applause, and we move away from him. The room acts like a box, signifying how he is stuck in his mind. It is all a mess.
We root for Rupert in all the havoc he causes. His inability to understand and accept the reality in front of him creates a lot of awkward situations. After a point in the film, the line between reality and his imagination blurs, and we cut forth between the two, knowing what is happening and when. In his head, he is meeting with Jerry at his office, where he is the star. There, Jerry invites him to his summer home for the weekend. He asks if he can bring his girlfriend with him. And then he lands up there one day, and it is no longer in his mind. This amalgamation of the two ways creates interesting situations, making things uncomfortable for everyone around. Rupert has only one friend, who has her own issues and is a stalker herself. Together, they represent the perils of hero worship.
Rupert reflects a lot of emotions that Travis from “Taxi Driver” also lives with. While Travis is a man of few words, he is lost in his own space and mind. Rupert speaks a lot and is just on the verge of being extra sweet with his cleverly designed look in the film. There is an innocence in his eyes and face that is pushed further with the way he talks. It is a thing of extreme dedication the way De Niro finds a difference in acting out the two characters. He subdues himself while being in the shoes of Travis and pushes it a little when playing Rupert. Then there is also the overall feel, which is entirely different for both films. De Niro’s performance in both is one of the highlights of making the films what they are. Just looking at his eyes in “Taxi Driver” dives us into his head. It is not just his dialogue delivery that speaks, but how he walks and brings himself about, how he looks around and moves his head. De Niro expresses with every part of his body. It’s a treat to watch him cause a riot around all the other characters. To play someone who doesn’t understand shame and is the master of their own head, someone on the verge of losing their mind, not adding the murderous quality of a bad person but keeping it in the middle where the behavior evokes creepiness rather than stating it. De Niro re-invents what it is to act, and both the films are a masterclass in the acting world, especially when looked at together, seeing how he finds both the characters, and there seems to be not an iota of repetition in either.
“The King of Comedy” bombed at the box office when it came out but was taken well by the critics, rightly so. It is an important film in the life of Scorsese and definitely counted among his best. Exploring themes of obsession turning into danger with the rigorous filmmaking of Scorsese messes with your head and takes you closer to Rupert. It is heartbreaking at times to see the discomfort created by Rupert and how slowly he loses his mind throughout.