Of all Martin Scorsese’s outings with sparring partner Robert DeNiro, this is the strangest. He plays Rupert Pupkin, an aspiring stand-up comic (and seedy creep) who dreams of fronting his own TV show but spends his life hanging around stage doors, collecting autographs, and waiting in Reception.
His powerfully complex performance is matched by that of Jerry Lewis who is magnificent as Johnny Carson-style chat-show king Jerry Langford (who makes the mistake of being nice to Pupkin in a moment of weakness).
Rupert prepares his audition by practicing on a cardboard cut-out of Liza Minnelli in his mother’s basement. Every day he marches into the network for his personal interview with Jerry, his idol, and every day he gets rejected by a brisk talent coordinator (crisply and intelligently played by Shelley Hack).
Humiliated by underlings, ejected by security guards, and finally physically thrown out of the star’s country house by the star himself, Rupert cracks.
With the aid of a rich, brash, and pathetic crackpot groupie named Marsha (played by hammer-faced comic Sandra Bernhard), Rupert launches his most ambitious plan ever. He kidnaps Jerry with a cap pistol, ties and gags him, and holds him for ransom in exchange for a guest appearance on the show.
The kidnappers build up so much fantasy in their minds that they finally reach the point of no return. They can’t tell fantasy from reality. Paranoid obsession becomes dangerous. You can’t dissuade these people, you can’t avoid them, and you can’t insult them. Worse, you can’t get rid of them. They begin with chutzpah, then work their way into revenge.
The network gives in and 87 million people see him, and turn his stupid comedy routine into a media sensation.
At 37, after serving only two years of a six-year prison sentence, Rupert Pupkin is released as a major star. In goes a wacko, out comes a living legend.
Though a box office failure, Scorsese’s black comedy is now regarded by many to be his lost masterpiece – and probably made David Letterman hire bodyguards.
Robert De Niro