Picks and Pans Review: King of Comedy

updated 02/21/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/21/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

As a TV talk show host kidnapped at gunpoint, Jerry Lewis invests King of Comedy with a performance of astonishing restraint. Gone is the spasmodic, physical Jerry of yore. Instead, he paints a wickedly accurate portrait of a celebrity exhausted and straitjacketed by success. This is a major character but, sadly, Lewis' role proves peripheral to the matters at hand. What director Martin (Raging Bull) Scorsese and critic-turned-screenwriter Paul D. Zimmerman are offering is a caustic but curiously labored treatise on celebrity obsession. Robert De Niro plays Rupert Pupkin, a struggling comic who, in his daydreams, sees Lewis as his mentor. In fact, Lewis and his assistant (well played by ex-Angel Shelley Hack) continually give him the brush. When De Niro involves his innocent girlfriend, Diahnne Abbott (Mrs. De Niro in real life), in his obsessions, the line between fantasy and reality blurs dangerously. De Niro abducts Lewis with the help of Sandra Bernhard, a rich young neurotic who holds Lewis captive in her candlelit Manhattan apartment while De Niro demands a spot on Lewis' show as ransom. The kidnappers are sick, suffering characters deserving of compassion, but they get precious little from Scorsese, who views them always from a safe, superior distance. De Niro's last-minute rise to fame is the film's ultimate sick joke. Perhaps burning over the criticism he received for Taxi Driver—a film which co-starred De Niro and Jodie Foster and allegedly influenced John Hinckley—Scorsese uses King of Comedy as an act of exoneration, not contrition. He implies that the press should bear the brunt for glamorizing and even inciting criminal behavior. On the evidence here, such reasoning seems spurious. The acting excellence of Lewis, De Niro and especially Bernhard, a stand-up comic new to the screen, may make King of Comedy glitter. But Scorsese, refusing to share responsibility for the society he mirrors, wears a hollow crown. (PG)

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