“The King of Laughter,” director and co-writer Mario Martone’s screen biography of the comic actor and playwright Eduardo Scarpetta, finishes with a flourish. Late in life, the famed parodist, played by Toni Servillo, is in court, defending himself against charges of plagiarism by a playwright whose work he spoofed for laughs.
Scarpetto, a major figure in Italian theatrical history and already local legend in his native Naples, puts on the performance of a lifetime, “playing” to the judges, attorneys and audience, rolling his Italian “r’s” and putting on the Ritz as a poor man wronged and a great artist defamed.
And you think, “Damn, Mario Martone. Why didn’t you get to this earlier?”
First, we had to get a GENEROUS helping of Scarpetto’s work on the stage in an opening act that quotes extensively from one of the productions in his repertoire, a show seen from on-stage, where Scarpetto seems to have most of his family performing with him, and backstage, where the seamstress and others in his family wait in the wings for their cues, babysitting those too young to join the act.
But the play in question either doesn’t translate (in Italian with English subtitles), or simply doesn’t amount to anything modern audiences outside of Calabria would go for today. It climaxes with a messy meal that turns into a near food fight.
The film’s middle acts get into the true messiness of Scarpetta’s life. Yes, he and his brood live in a mansion on a hilltop, a residence famed because he paid for it with the take of one show — Villa La Santarella. On the face of it he’s had carved “Hear I laugh” as his address.
The big man in his 60s needs that huge house. He keeps three families, two of them, with other relatives, under that roof. His wife, Rosa De Filippo (Maria Nazionale) has three children, including his son Vincenzo (Antonio Lubrano), whom his wife says is the product of a fling with the then-king of Italy. Eduardo nicknames him “King’s Son” and rides him harder than his other children, and he rides most of them pretty hard — slaps for missed cues and harder slaps for blown lines. Then, there’s his child with the company’s costumer, Rosa’s niece Anna (Chiara Baffi). But his “official” newest mistress is the younger and prettier Luisa (Christiana Dell’Anna), who has three children by him.
None of the illegitimate children have been told their “Uncle” is their papa. All the adults interact freely, comfortable with what’s going on, with only Luisa feeling awkward at this ridiculous arrangement.
“In this house, we don’t know what embarrassment is,” Rosa reassures her.
So much time is spent establishing this large brood, showing how Eduardo adapts their repertoire — old favorites, new parodies, etc. — to fit which kid is “ready” to be brought into the act — that Martone doesn’t get to the meat of this movie until right about the time many viewers would be inclined to bail.
“Ok, WHO is this kid? And who is that woman?”
“The King of Laughter” is about Scarpetta’s shark-jumping moment. An old hoofer who made his fortune with plays that drew in the masses and the upper classes, he’s facing a new proletarian art form for actors, cinema (briefly glimpsed). And it’s right at this moment that he gambles, cap-in-hand, with a dramatic playwright (Paolo Pierobon) whose tragedy we’ve seen Eduardo watch, stifling his delighted grins and chuckles as he sees how “The Daughter of Iorio” coup be twisted into a cross-dressing farce, “The Son of Iorio.”
We get a taste of the funnyman’s age-old desire to be accepted and taken seriously, fawning as he interrupts Don D’Annunzio mid-orgy (apparently) to get his approval, his blessing and his written permission to parody his work.
Not that this has been legally required up to now. And not that the written permission is given. We, unlike Cavaliere Scarpetta, smell a trap.
Servillo, of “Il Divo” and “The Hand of God,” is in grand form here, every inch of him the wealthy, self-made and overdressed star. At times, especially in that finale, we can see what the Italian public would have seen back then — a comic who is funny in his bones.
But “The King of Laughter,” “Qui rido io” in Italian, is in many ways as messy as the personal and professional life who is its subject. Martone gets bogged down in the family melodrama and drags out that first act’s play (Wasn’t there a funnier one to sample?) so much that he wears down our interest in what’s going on.
Taking the company on the road? Sure. Snippets of others shows, classic bits and characters? Why not?
It’s all the soap operatic “You need to make a will” melodrama of the guy’s many families that bog it down. The bright bits make one believe there’s a brisk, pointed and poignant movie in this — one that clocks in a good 30 minutes shorter than this “King” demands.
Rating: unrated, adult situations
Cast: Toni Servillo, Maria Nazionale, Cristiana Dell’Anna, Chiara Baffi and Paolo Pierobon
Credits: Directed by Mario Martone, scripted by Ippolita Di Majo and Mario Marton. A Film Movement release.
Running time: 2:13