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King Of Comedy

In the post-reality-TV age (the welcome demise of Big Brother surely heralding a shift away from drably manipulative shows that line up idiots-with-issues for puerile pot-shots) it’s always good to re-acquaint yourself with a film that, well over a quarter of a century ago, had a wry, hilarious, disturbing look at a floundering, intensely and talentlessly warped wannabe.

De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin ‘Often mis-spelt and mispronounced!’ is a besuited delusional that spends his time either daydreaming about airbrushing his disastrously limp existence (memorably getting a fantasy apology from his ex-headmaster on live television: ‘We thought you’d never amount to a hill of beans. Well, you were right, Rupert. And we were wrong.’), talking to cardboard versions of Liza Minelli or Jerry Lewis or over-zealously pursuing the latter for a spot on his show and a leg-up as a stand-up. He helps Lewis, hassled amidst the throng outside the studio exit, get into his waiting limo and temporarily rids him of the rabid attentions of Sandra Bernhard’s unhinged stalker.

We then squirm as Pupkin haltingly attempts a kind of ingratiate/persuade number on Lewis’s Jerry Langford in order to catch an unlikely break. Langford fobs Pupkin off (eventually) with a breezily dismissive invitation to call his office, which is totally misconstrued and leads to increasingly ridiculous invasions into Langford’s life, including painfully obstinate loiterings in Langford’s office foyer as various minions humour and ultimately tire off his relentless avidity, and a somehow charming, idiotic wooing of local cheerleader turned bartender. His mounting desperation culminates in the doofus kidnapping (initially laughed-off as a hoax) of Langford and those 10 minutes of fame that lead to worldwide fame and money-toting clamour for ‘the new king of comedy’…

As a commentary on self-obsessed, vapid no-marks hellbent on fame, it’s non-pareil. There’s no judgemental guff or carefully laid out descent into any kind of morality lesson – we leave Pupkin on (imaginary?) stage, lapping up applause, milking adulation, in his element. He’s talentless, but he’s where he needs to be: in peoples’ faces. For everyone out there that’s looked into the dead, lovestarved doll eyes of whoever is currently out front in the reality-goon jostle, here is recognition. The lights are on, but the only people home are cardboard cut-outs and imaginary acolytes.

DeNiro is as good as it gets, and exhibits more range than most actors could ever dream of. He is by turns hilarious, empty, terrifying, gauche, bumbling, parasitical, endearing. He is absolutely magnificent. Lewis is brilliant and perfectly judged as a seen-it-all all-rounder in the twilight of his career, and Bernhard is plain scary. And the whole thing expertly occupies the scant netherworld between hilarious and nightmarish. As the man says, it’s better to be king for a day than schmuck for a lifetime. A line that must be imbued with a certain poignancy for the once-great testosterone-tornado star of this career highlight.

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