Robert De Niro’s relationship with comedy is… well, pretty turbulent. In the right hands, he’s absolutely brilliant. In the wrong hands, the two-time Oscar winner finds his name in front of Showtime, Analyze That, Shark Tale and Little Fockers. And that’s without delving into his SNL guest appearances. Yikes. His contributions to comedy aren’t nearly as fruitful as his enthusiasm. Despite that, however, The Comedian looked — dare I say — fairly promising.
It returned the legendary actor to the world of stand-up comedy, where De Niro quite arguably produced the best performance of his esteemed career in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. It also reunites the headliner with Art Linson, the screenwriter/producer that served as the subject and leading pen behind 2008’s underrated What Just Happened. The potential was palpable — and that’s without mentioning the rest of the ensemble, which includes Leslie Mann, Danny DeVito, Edie Falco, Harvey Keitel, Charles Grodin and guest appearances from Cloris Leachman, Billy Crystal, Hannibal Burress, Jim Norton, Nick Di Paolo and more. Oh, the disappointment that springs forth.
The Comedian is a character piece centered around the grumpy Jackie Burke (De Niro), an aging insult comedian who made his name on the tube with Eddie’s Home, a beloved Honeymooners-esque B&W family sitcom which gives people the wrong ideas about his act. Struggling to stay relevant in a trying profession which caters largely towards younger talent, Jackie bounces from one degrading set to the next guided by his straight-faced assistant, Miller (Falco), the daughter of his deceased former assistant whom he fired at the height of his fame. Making pennies on the dime to little fanfare or appreciation, Jackie tries to keep himself fresh in a world that merely wants him to repeat his tired catchphrase, and that frustration and annoyance ultimately get the better of him.
Following a nasty dispute which finds Jackie beating up an aggravating heckler with his microphone while on-camera, the legendary funny man gets sent to the dog house for 30 days charged with assault. The video goes viral, obviously, but Jackie’s violent behavior cancels his few remaining gigs and instead forces him to perform 100 hours of community service at the local soup kitchen.
But it’s not a complete loss because that’s where Jackie meets Harmony (Mann). Harmony is a good-natured idealist with a history of unfortunate abuse. Due to her violent behavior towards cheating lovers and their mistresses, she found her calling helping the even less fortunate. Jackie and Harmony don’t meet on friendly terms, but they eventually get along handsomely. Soon, they’re trading jokes, stories, troubled pasts and a few other things during off-hours, and they form an unlikely companionship through misshapen NYC nights. But their blooming relationship needs to jump more-than-a-few hurdles, notably Harmony’s controlling father (Keitel) and his concerning eye.
Throughout The Comedian, there’s the perpetually nagging suspicion that this long-brewing project was left on the burner too long for its own good. According to IMDb trivia, De Niro has tried to get this one off the ground for eight years, with Sean Penn and Mike Newell attached to direct at different points. It’s easy to see why he would want it to get it lifted. An A-list thespian with a cruder sense of humor than most people care to admit, The Comedian not only returns De Niro to the world of stand-up comedy but it gives him the chance to wield insults and sly remarks wherever (and whenever) he damn well pleases. It caters well to his I-don’t-really-give-a-fuck-anymore modern mentality, while also letting him play in some fertile, mature dramatic territory. There’s no doubting De Niro’s heft in the role. It’s clearly inspired, and he does what he can to make it work.
However, under the direction of the unfortunately-named Taylor Hackford (Ray), The Comedian is deeply bland, carelessly wonky and frustratingly misguided. Serving as a underwhelmed director-for-hire in a seat that should service someone as passionate and energized as De Niro and/or Linson, Hackford paints a by-the-numbers celebrity redemption story with little desire to move away from the Judd Apatow-wannabe dramedy mold —which notably makes it an older, sloppier and less inviting Funny People in the process. The camera work is flat, most shots are overlit, the editing is perfunctory at best, everything looks weirdly cheap and the script is all over the goddamn place.
With a screenplay credited to Linson, roast master Jeff Ross, Richard LaGravenese (The Last Five Years) and comedian Lewis Friedman, The Comedian never finds a balance between its lighthearted comedy, dark satire, character drama and insult stand-up comedy. It’s not merely lopsided, but also confused and uncomfortable. Not focused and assured enough to present a well-rounded intensive personality piece, yet not frequently funny enough to forgive that with yuks, Hackford’s poorly-handled film suffers from an identity crisis that’s largely unintended. Not committed or interested enough to explore anything meaningful or depth-filled with Jackie Burke’s disturbed character, yet not integrated inside the current world of stand-up comedy enough for the passing punchlines to hit, it’s a largely sluggish, tediously overlong drag. Get off the stage and find your act. Few things are more unbearable than disastrous stand-up acts. It’s no fun for anyone.
There’s an underlying sweetness laced throughout The Comedian, one that sometimes saves the overall film from complete failure. Admittedly, it’s a modest-looking movie, if fairly uninspired, and that periodically plays into its infrequent charm — especially as you watch all these talented performers work off each other in humble fashion. At its best, it’s an enjoyable rainy Saturday afternoon movie. I’m a sucker for New Yorkers yelling at one another at the cinema. I’ll admit it upfront. But The Comedian, like Jackie Burke at the center, isn’t nearly fresh, interesting, surprising or dynamic enough to work, despite its occasional high points. The Comedian is, unfortunately, more Dirty Grandpa than The King of Comedy, and that’s no joke. What a shame. Sad!