EXCLUSIVE: Get ready to amend those early Oscar season handicapping odds! Sony Pictures Classics has acquired from Cinelou The Comedian and will set the picture for release in Oscar season. SPC bought North American rights to the Taylor Hackford-directed film stars Robert De Niro as an insult comic in career and personal crisis, and word is that it is the strongest performance in years for the two-time Oscar winning actor who most recently was nominated for Silver Linings Playbook in 2013.

The plan is to release early next year, with a qualifying run in late December. I’m hearing that a possible launch of the picture at the upcoming AFI is a strong possibility. Warner Bros International has foreign on The Comedian through its deal with Cinelou.

De Niro plays a toxic insult comic on the order of a Don Rickles (with whom De Niro starred in Casino), and this is a passion project he and screenwriter Art Linson have been trying to pull together for years. Leslie Mann, Edie Falco, Harvey Keitel, Danny DeVito, and Patti LuPone also star. It will be De Niro’s second time playing a stand-up guy, following his iconic turn as stalker/comic Rupert Pupkin in 1982’s The King of Comedy. The stand-up comedy material in the new movie was written by Lewis Friedman and Jeffrey Ross had a hand in it as well. Stand-up comics in the film include Hannibal Buress, Gilbert Gottfried and Jim Norton. Linson and De Niro most recently worked together on the Hollywood-centric pic What Just Happened?, which starred De Niro as a harried producer.

Hackford produced with Cinelou’s Mark Canton and Courtney Solomon, and Linson and John Linson from Linson Entertainment. Exec producers are Cinelou’s Scott Karol, the Fyzz Facility’s Wayne Marc Godfrey and Robert Jones, Mad Riot Entertainment’s Mark Axelowitz and Lawrence Smith, Iain Abrahams, Peter Sobiloff, Dennis Pelino and Fredy Bush.

De Niro’s character is an aging comic who has tried to reinvent himself but finds the audience only wants to know him as the former TV character he once played. He’s become a strain on his younger brother (DeVito) and his wife (LuPone), and things hit rock bottom when he’s sentenced to community service for beating up a heckler. There, he meets the daughter (Mann) of a sleazy Florida real estate mogul (Keitel) and finds a kinship with the woman that leads to his own resurgence.

Said SPC: “Robert De Niro is at his very best in The Comedian. Leslie Mann is a revelation. A rich supporting cast including Danny DeVito, Edie Falco, Patti LuPone, Cloris Leachman, and Harvey Keitel really delivers. Taylor Hackford is the accomplished ringmaster. It will be a pleasure bringing this satisfying movie to American audiences. it is great to be in business with our friends Art Linson, Courtney Solomon and Mark Canton.”

The picture, like many indies, had several incarnations, with Sean Penn and then Mike Newell stepping in and then stepping out as directors before Hackford got it done with the backing of Cinelou, which staked the Jennifer Aniston-starrer Cake and launched it in a similar manner. Said the helmer: “Being invited by Bob De Niro and Art Linson to join them in actualizing their long-gestating passion project was an opportunity I couldn’t refuse. Passion was the key word for everyone on this film, with De Niro in the lead, and Mark Canton and Courtney Solomon’s Cinelou making it happen.”

Said the Cinelou duo: “Robert De Niro has been nurturing this story for years, so we’re incredibly honored to have been able to help bring it to life,” said Canton. “Sony Classics is tailor-made to release the film, as Michael Barker and Tom Bernard have the perfect sensibility for it.’ Said Solomon: “There’s amazing chemistry between Bob and leslie. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, but both of these actors have a talent for injecting drama into all the right places, creating a great balance between the humor and drama.’