“I’ve never liked artists who have more fun offstage than onstage,” says Italian comic star Eduardo Scarpetta (played by Toni Servillo) in “The King of Laughter.” If that was indeed Scarpetta’s belief, he would have thoroughly approved of Mario Martone’s big, brash, garishly frosted celebration cake of a biopic, in which everyone involved seems to be having the very best of times, tumbling onto screen with the breathless energy of a community theater crew given a very generous spotlight. How much fun viewers will be having with them is open to question. Those au fait with the particular chapter of Italian theater history outlined in Martone’s film might join in the eager applause from the local press contingent at Venice. Others may be more bemused by its unrelenting, dialed-to-11 spirit of cinematic carousing.
“The King of Laughter” is Martone’s third film in four years to premiere in competition at Venice, underlining the high regard in which the veteran director is still held in his home country, though neither of the previous two — the turgidly high-minded period piece “Capri-Revolution” and the theatrically framed Camorra saga “The Mayor of Rione Sanita” — made any real headway internationally. Peppier and more colorful than those films, and given greater marquee pull by Servillo’s broad, barnstorming lead turn, “The King of Laughter” is already proving more exportable: Film Movement plans to release in North America.
That said, Martone’s latest is extremely, extravagantly, even absurdly Italian, from the cast’s frequent “che vuoi?” hand gesturing to the camera’s repeated grazing over large, lushly shot platters of pasta to the constant, lusty vocal renditions of canzone napoletana that soundtrack scene after scene. If “The King of Laughter” borders on self-parodic in this respect, that’s no accident: Parody was actor-playwright Scarpetta’s favorite mode of performance in his turn-of-the-century, and the film’s cluttered, freewheeling screenplay is at least faintly anchored by a legal battle over his work that hinged on the difference between parody and plagiarism.
That may not be the most inviting route into the subject’s life and work for the uninitiated. Yet “The King of Laughter” (an English-language title that inevitably risks confusion with “The King of Comedy,” while the Italian original translates as “Here I Laugh”) commits without compromise to its driving conceit: that Scarpetta’s personal life was as wildly expressive and uninhibited as his stage presence, to the extent that they’re not all that differently presented on screen.
Martone opens the film on a lengthy performance sequence, as Scarpetta and his extended theatrical company present a frenetic farce to a roaring audience, mingled with a few backstage glimpses that suggest that all was fun and games in this troupe: One of the clan’s youngsters misses his cue and gets a hard slap from Scarpetta as punishment. Once the action shifts to Casa Scarpetta, however, the register of the performances remains equally heightened and frantic, while production designers Giancarlo Muselli and Carlo Rescigno embrace artifice, playing up the maximalist luxury of each interior.
It takes some time to parse the family tree of Scarpetta’s household, bustling as it is with in-laws and children both acknowledged and illegitimate, often making his own wife Rosa (Maria Nazionale) feel like something of an afterthought. As long as they all remain in the company and recognize him as its genius impresario, everyone enjoys more or less equal status. His adult son Vincenzo (Eduardo Scarpetta, one of the subject’s own descendants) is tiring of his part in the machine, wishing to spread his wings as an actor on film, while young Eduardo (Alessandro Manna), the unfathered son of Rosa’s sister Luisa (Cristiana Dell’Anna), is inspired by his namesake and “uncle” to pursue playwriting — those immersed in the film’s world will recognize him as the future Eduardo de Filippo, the Italian theater titan whose work, in a neat dovetailing, was the source of Martone’s last feature.
Though the aforementioned court case — in which highbrow writer Gabriele D’Annunzio (Paolo Pierobon) sued Scarpetta over a comic spin on his play “The Daughter of Iorio,” cuing much public animosity and critical debate — gives the film some semblance of stakes, audiences are unlikely to feel heavily invested in the rhetorical barney that ensues. Instead, much of “The King of Laughter” is concerned with endless carousel of birthing, bonding and infighting in this unsurprisingly high-drama household, though at well over two hours, all these familial theatrics do prove rather overbearing — particularly with every actor seemingly taking their cue from the booming burlesque of Servillo’s performance. Martone’s film certainly appears to channel the spirit of Scarpetta, though its 18-course tribute banquet doesn’t leave you particularly hungry to investigate further.
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