2017, R, 119 min. Directed by Taylor Hackford. Starring Robert De Niro, Leslie Mann, Edie Falco, Harvey Keitel, Danny DeVito, Patti LuPone, Veronica Ferres, Cloris Leachman, Billy Crystal, Charles Grodin, Hannibal Buress.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Feb. 3, 2017
Most people may not remember, but Robert De Niro first appeared in scrappy little comedies directed by novice film director Brian De Palma, audacious late Sixties social satires like Greetings, The Wedding Party, and Hi Mom!. But when the Method Man subsequently channeled Vito Corleone, Travis Bickle, and Jake LaMotta, among others, he became the dramatic actor of his generation, one who obsessively researched his characters, going to great lengths to emulate their physical appearance to the point of near-fanaticism. And then, for a change of pace (or perhaps, a paycheck), he U-turned back to comedy in movies such as Analyze This and those Focker flicks, a wise move for bankability reasons (some of them clicked at the box office) but one that many believe critically diminished his thespic stature, particularly given some of his choices in roles. Recall his performance as the dictator Fearless Leader in the The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle. No doubt, it’s something he’d like you to forget.
In The Comedian, De Niro is Jackie Burke, a stand-up insult comic playing gigs at third-rate clubs serving up hecklers and cheap drinks, a past-his-prime entertainer struggling to keep his head above water in a world that refuses to see him as anything else but the blue-collar character he played in a hit Eighties-era sitcom called Eddie’s Home. (Fans are constantly calling him Eddie, a mistake he often tries to correct to no avail.) When Eddie, er, Jackie cute-meets the much younger and emotionally unbalanced Harmony (Mann) while performing community service (he sucker-punched an audience member at one of his shows), they strike up an improbable May-December relationship. (Her attraction for him is explained as the result of daddy issues in the form of Harvey Keitel.) The screenplay by stand-up comedian Jeff Ross, best known for hosting those celebrity roasts on Comedy Central, captures at times the pathos of a dimmed star striving to make a living, but does little to explain how a frustrated and sometimes angry Jackie got to where he is today. The character is much like a punch line in search of a joke.
While occasionally engaging, The Comedian isn’t very funny. The shock-and-awe humor of insult comedy can be harsh, though De Niro gallantly tries to pull it off without embarrassing himself. A tragically short scene in which Jackie participates in roasting a 95-year-old screen legend (Leachman) achieves a comic tempo that the film’s other jesting lacks. They say dying is easy, comedy is hard. It’s an observation that applies in more than one way to The Comedian.