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The King of Comedy

Movies, Music, and TV

The King of Comedy cover

The trailer for Joker dropped today, so what better time to take a look at its spiritual predecessor, The King of Comedy? Martin Scorsese’s criminally overlooked 1982 box office bomb brought in a paltry $2.5 million on a $20 million budget ($6.5 million and $52 million when adjusted for inflation), and it is understandable the movie hasn’t stuck to the public consciousness as much as Raging Bull or Taxi Driver have, if only because it ended up being flatly ignored. Now, with Scorsese producing and Robert De Niro co-starring in Joker, The King of Comedy is ripe to being appreciated for the strange, black comedy it is.

We follow De Niro’s Rubert Pupkin, a man as obsessed with late-night host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) as he is with becoming the new king of comedy. Managing to finagle his way into Langford’s limo after a show, the host, seemingly more than used to dealing with wannabe performers, gently pushes Pupkin aside with promises of listening to tapes of his performances. Send them to my producers, is something most of us will accept as a brush off; Pupkin takes it as a guaranteed promise he’ll be on the show.

Of course, the self-proclaimed comedian doesn’t have any tapes—he has never performed his act outside of his mom’s basement. There he has a fake talk-show set where he yucks it up with Liza Minnelli in front of hundreds of fans. For Pupkin, there is no separation between reality and fantasy. If it happens in his mind, it is the truth.

Pupkin is not a sympathetic character, and he can’t blame his behavior on having been dealt a bad hand in life. He has a good job, and his mom, from what we hear from her, sounds like a reasonable woman. The fact that he’s thirty-four and lives in her basement says more about him than anyone else. Pupkin feels he deserves to reach the top without working for it. You gotta start at the bottom, Langford says, to which Pupkin responds, well, I’m already here.

As reality and fantasy start melding, Pupkin’s behavior becomes unhinged. After convincing a girl he is personal friends with Langford, the couple shows up at the host’s weekend house for a dinner party that only was to take place in Pupkin’s head. Soon, it becomes apparent even to Pupkin that he never will get a shot at performing, which leads him to the only logical next step: to kidnap Langford, and force the producers to put him on the show.

The King of Comedy is darkly funny. You won’t laugh out loud, but De Niro, Lewis, and a young Sandra Bernhard, nail their roles. Jerry Lewis is best known as the over the top comedian who inexplicably hit it big in France (and in my household growing up), but with The King of Comedy, he shows restraint and menace. His character clearly is a jerk, and no matter how off-kilter Pupkin is, it’s hard to show Langford much sympathy.

Lewis’s input to the movie was significant, from improvising scenes with De Niro to directing a scene, and even naming his character. Going by Jerry, the crew could stealthily film him walking down the street, people cheering his (and his character’s) name as he passed by.

The movie is cleverly edited, and it’s hard to know what is real and what is happening in Pupkin’s head. The last few scenes are entirely up to your interpretation. What actually happened to Pupkin? Is what we’re seeing fantasy or reality?

I truly enjoyed The King of Comedy, and consider it Scorsese’s finest work. It’s a fitting companion piece to Taxi Driver—Pupkin and Travis Bickle both lack a grip on reality—and it will be interesting to see if Joker falls in line like many of us expect.

The King of Comedy, meanwhile, is a classic all on its own, and it’s streaming for free on Prime right now.

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Absentia

Movies, Music, and TV

Absentia cover

I never intended to watch Mike Flanagan’s entire oeuvre, but here we are, and as I’m four movies in, the completionist in me won’t let me stop now. His recent films and TV shows have, after all, been uniformly good. Absentia, one of the director’s earlier works, is also worth a watch, despite being filmed a budget that never could prop up its ambitions.

Produced on a shoestring $70,000—a third or so of which was Kickstarted —Absentia follows a fairly standard plot on the surface: Tricia is forced to declare her husband dead in absentia after he has been missing for seven years. Soon after, she starts having nightmares and seeing apparitions. Her sister has similarly strange experiences in a nearby tunnel, a place that is… Well, it is something, including the center of the movie.

In the grander scheme of Flanagan’s works, Absentia isn’t among his best. The foundation is there, but the story doesn’t live up to what the plot sets up. Overall, the production is high on the indie-on-a-budget spectrum, which is just fine, but the execution isn’t as polished as what Flanagan achieved with Oculus and Hush. (I also assume those had a slightly larger budget; The Haunting of Hill House obviously had a bottomless pit type of budget.)

Yet, Flanagan and crew make it work. The lo-fi æsthetics give Absentia a gritty feel, and as the story unfolds, the mythology it sets up is intriguing, even though it doesn’t entirely pay off. Had they filmed it today, the movie would likely have been more Haunting… than Oculus.

Overall, though, Absentia is a must watch for anyone who enjoys Flanagan’s recent work, and thanks to Netflix, that’s many. The path from then to now is interesting, plus Absentia is a good watch on its own merits.

Bonus! Our deep-dive into other Flanagan movies:

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Best F(r)iends: Volume 1 & 2

Movies, Music, and TV

Best F(r)iends: Volume 1 & 2 cover

I like to believe that those of us who consider ourselves fans of The Room do so without a snarky, ironic detachment. Tommy Wiseau’s magnum opus might not objectively be good, but it was undeniably made with a lot of heart. Read co-star/line-producer (an impossible combination) Greg Sestero’s book on the movie, The Disaster Artist, and you’ll have a newfound appreciation for what Wiseau wanted to create, too. The Room might be a story of misplaced self-pity, but then, how many of us can claim to have made an enduring cult classic when we were down in the dumps? The Room is, for all its warts, an inspiring and hypnotically fascinating movie.

I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from the Sestero-penned Best F(r)iends duo of films (which I consider a singular entity). I knew it was inspired by the writer’s friendship with Wiseau (which miraculously survived the nightmare filming of The Room), and that the latter’s role was specifically written for him. What I did not expect, was that Best F(r)iends, for all intents and purposes, is Sestero’s The Room. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an almost infinitely better movie, but if The Room serves as Wiseau’s view on the duo’s friendship, Best F(r)iends is Sestero’s perspective. And while The Room unintentionally was bizarre, Best F(r)iends is purposefully strange, dreamlike, and surreal.

We follow Sestero’s Jon (in a nod to The Room’s Johnny) who befriends his new mortician employer, Wiseau’s Harvey, a man of unknown age, with a mysterious past. Soon, Jon hatches a plan to sell gold fillings picked from the morgue’s bodies, kicking off a downward spiral of greed and paranoia. It’s something out of a David Lynch movie.

Fans of The Disaster Artist and The Room will be served a number of nods and references to those two works—IMDb’s trivia section doesn’t even come close to cover it—yet it never feels forced. Sestero and Wiseau consider Best F(r)iends the second part of The Room trilogy (James Franco’s The Disaster Artist adaptation the third), and the symbiosis is natural. It’s a fascinating watch.

How good of a standalone movie Best F(r)iends is, I don’t know—I’m too entrenched in The Room lore to be able to determine that. It certainly has its flaws, and the first thirty minutes could easily have been compressed into a third of that. At times, the limited budget becomes painfully apparent, and additional takes could have helped some of the more painful scenes.

Yet, I can’t help but find a lot of things to like, even for those who know nothing about The Room. The colors look gorgeous, and the film has a very distinct visual style. It’s the bizarro The Room. And god help me: Wiseau is great. He is, of course, 100% playing himself, which probably is the extent of his range, but the character fits Best F(r)iends perfectly. I don’t think anyone else (sans Franco in character as Wiseau) could have played Harvey.

The soundtrack, too, fits the tone of the movie with its ambiance and sonic landscape.

Best F(r)iends exists in its own surreal, little world, just like The Room does, and while it might be the second entry in a loose trilogy, it deserves to be recognized as a cult movie in its own right. It’s weird and often wonderful, and Wiseau and Sestero clearly have a lot of fun on screen.

The ending sets up for a volume three. I would welcome it: The world, as it is today, needs Wiseau and Sestero to bring their particular style of joy to it and us.

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Señor Villa

The Ahogada FilesSeattle

When you find something new and exotic in faraway lands, it is just natural to want to keep exploring the phenomenon at home. Does the discovery exist here? Does it measure up? Can you relive the glory of another culture?

These were questions raised after we sampled tortas ahogadas in Guadalajara. On the surface, it seems like the sandwiches should exist in Seattle, but a major caveat is the bread, which, allegedly, can only be baked in Guadalajara. The ahogada comes drowned in sauce, and a solid foundation is needed for the sandwich not to turn into mush.

We have found a handful of spots around town that make ahogada, and, if Señor Villa is anything to go by, it sounds like the claims of proper bread only existing in Guadalajara might be right.

Illustrative image

To its credit, the WeRoRa1 restaurant delivered a well-flavored sandwich. The sauce was right up there with what we tried in Guadalajara: spicy, with smoky, distinct undertones. The traditional carnitas retained their bite, even when drenched in sauce. Put the fillings on a tortilla, and you’d have a legit taco.

The bread, though, faltered as the local Tapatío had warned. It was hard to make out the flavors, and a spoon was required to scoop up the sandwich. The baseline test had, in other words, failed, and the result was more of a flavorful bread pudding.

In that sense, we can recommend the sandwich for what it is, as it tasted good, but as an ahogada experience, it was a letdown. If that is something you can live with, you will at least enjoy an honest, savory attempt.

Maybe it does, indeed, come down to the required bread solely existing in Guadalajara. We will keep investigating because that is what we do: selflessly eat sandwiches as a public service to you, the tortillaphile.

1 Wedgewood, Roosevelt, Ravenna.