Grit-and-grime guy Martin Scorsese works the mean streets of comedy.
In his film vernacular, comedy's all split sides and pulled legs, cracked jokes and poked fun. His "King of Comedy," a black confection, is a transitional film for the director and for actors Jerry Lewis as a straightman and Robert De Niro as a stand- up comedian.
Lewis, as nasty as we always knew he could be, plays a Carson carbon named Jerry Langford, a late-night talk star stalked by comic pretender Rupert Pupkin (De Niro). Langford is a national pastime, but aloof in person. Too many fans. Too many crowds. Yet fame is his heroin: It isolates, it consumes, but he can't give it up. Lewis' restrained performance -- even his body language speaks of agony -- revives an ailing career.
In contrast, costar De Niro is stuck -- still a raging bull in a comedy shop, butting at jokes, not telling them. As the no-talent comic Pupkin, he wants to knock the king off his throne, pull the plug on his mike, erase his laugh track, sabotage his monologue. He pursues Langford in fantasy and reality, with the two finally merging in a desperate scheme that uses a guest spot as ransom.
Creepy newcomer Sandra Bernhard helps Pupkin kidnap Langford, the object of her groupie obsession. Vampyra meets Tallulah Bankhead in her mobile face, with its thick lips and luminous eyes. In an unforgettable scene, Bernhard, a spider goddess, sings to her victim in a web of tape. The room flickers with candles, like a Catholic church at dusk. She molests him with her eyes, first. He's helpless and repulsed at the prospect of being devoured by her.
The cosmetic relief is former "Charlie's Angel" Shelley Hack, crisp and effective, as a member of Langford's production staff. The supporting cast is superb, particularly "The Tonight Show" producer Fred De Cordova as make-believe producer of the Langford show. And Dr. Joyce Brothers, Victor Borge, Tony Randall and Ed Herlihy add a documentary touch as themselves.
"The King of Comedy," with its tight and complicated juxtaposition of scenes, bears Scorsese's brands of tension and obsession. The director's strong street sense shows in some especially fine exteriors, crowded with ghetto-box sound and urban jangle. Still, the no-hero scenario courts box-office disaster. THE KING OF COMEDY -- At area theaters.