There’s virtually no way to talk about Matteo Garrone’s comic fable Reality without giving a nod to The King Of Comedy, Martin Scorsese’s masterful dark comedy about the dreams and delusions of a lonely shut-in who seeks to becomes the next late-night TV star. And while the comparison is inevitably unflattering to Garrone’s film, Reality makes a fine companion, responding to a time when the word “reality” sometimes belongs in air quotes and people feel more entitled than ever to their 15 minutes of fame. The King Of Comedy’s Rupert Pupkin remains as disturbingly antisocial as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, hosting an imaginary talk show with cardboard cutouts in his basement. By contrast, the hero of Reality is a Neopolitan fishmonger and family man who’s gregarious to a fault; he’s already the acknowledged center of his cozy universe. His need to extend that approbation into national fame and fortune is a peculiar pathology the film explores with humor and exuberance.
The spectacular opening shot descends from the heavens until it finds an ornate horse-drawn carriage clomping through the streets of Naples, en route to a wedding that doubles as a garish televised event. The special guest is “Enzo,” the glad-handing winner of the Italian Big Brother, but Aniello Arena, a guest who’s changed into drag for the occasion, is eager to get his share of the spotlight. The display would be more pathetic if Arena wasn’t genuinely charismatic, or if his friends and family weren’t so encouraging of his shenanigans. When auditions for the next Big Brother season open up at the local mall, Arena charms his way in front of the camera and becomes utterly convinced that his slot on the show is assured. Then he waits for the call. And waits. And waits.
Garrone laughs along as Arena’s impatience and worry manifest as intense paranoia and desperation: In one scene, he accommodates a bum at his fish stand after convincing himself that the guy might be a network plant; in another, he pleads to Enzo from behind the air-duct grate in his dressing room. While its barbs on celebrity and reality television are expected and a little facile, they’re mostly a misdirect for a story about family, community, and religion, and Arena’s willful estrangement from a perfectly happy life in pursuit of another, more rarified one. His outrageous, self-destructive journey lands him in a place just as ironic as Rupert Pupkin’s in The King Of Comedy, but it’s haunting and mysterious, too, reflecting the dream that consumes his life.