It is almost impossible to watch The Comedian, in which Robert De Niro plays a washed-up TV sitcom star named Jackie Burke, and not think about The King Of Comedy. Although that savagely biting 1983 Martin Scorsese classic was wildly different, it also featured De Niro as a delusional wannabe stand-up comic who kidnaps talk show host Jerry Lewis. I will take Rupert Pupkin, warts and all, any day, compared to spending more time with the miserable and angry Burke, who winds up having to do community service in a soup kitchen after getting into a physical altercation with an audience member at one of his pathetic shows.
As I say in my video review above, De Niro is every bit as adept at comedy as he is in his much lauded dramatic roles (2016’s grossly inept Dirty Grandpa aside). Just think of De Niro’s wry touch in movies like Meet The Parents, Analyze This, Wag The Dog, Midnight Run and most recently The Intern and you know he has the chops when it comes to lighter material. In The Comedian he delivers another very accomplished and believable turn, but it is just because Burke is so irrefutably nauseating to be around that I found the whole thing rather depressing to watch.
Veteran filmmakers including director Taylor Hackford and a quartet of writers including Art Linson, Jeffrey Ross, Lewis Friedman and Richard LaGravenese certainly know what they have to do to make any of this work. In some scenes they succeed — particularly one where De Niro does a show in a senior home. But the number of credited writers indicates there were lots of hands in this pot, which may be why much of it feels disjointed.
They also try to warm this guy up by providing a love interest of sorts in the form of Harmony (Leslie Mann), a woman about half his age that he meets while serving up insults in the soup kitchen. She has her own issues, but what she would see in Burke is a mystery, with age difference not even topping the list. Perhaps if they dared to really get dark with this thing it would have been a much more interesting film. They should have gotten their cue from Scorsese if they wanted to take an actor of the caliber of De Niro and put him back in this milieu — one of the writers, Linson, was in fact responsible for the highly underrated De Niro vehicle What Just Happened? which was a much more pointed and telling showbiz saga than this one could ever hope to be. And don’t forget Hackford did one of the best showbiz movies ever with The Idolmaker.
The Comedian is a thoroughly all-pro exercise in terms of talent in front of and behind the scenes, and that is what makes its shortcomings so frustrating. But on the bright side in addition to De Niro, at least this film has been cast with the best of the best even if most appear just ever so briefly. They make it almost worthwhile (I said almost): Edie Falco hits some nice notes as De Niro’s frustrated manager just trying to get him gigs he doesn’t completely blow; Charles Grodin (his Midnight Run co-star), Cloris Leachman and Harvey Keitel are welcome too, with the latter playing Harmony’s sleazy real estate mogul father and getting off a nice dinner scene with his old Mean Streets co-star De Niro. Best of all is a sequence set at a family wedding where Burke is persona non grata. Danny De Vito plays his brother, and Patti LuPone his fed-up sister-in-law who reads him the riot act in a terrifically funny and well-acted moment. There are also welcome cameos from real-life comics Billy Crystal, Brett Butler, Jimmie Walker and others along the way.
Mann, one of the best comic actresses on the planet, has to play it straight here and she acquits herself quite nicely considering she has to make this budding relationship between two very opposite people who meet doing community service palatable. Playing a guy whose biggest career achievement was starring in a cheesy network sitcom called Eddie’s Home and then trying to erase it from his past, De Niro manages to rise above the material, and even embraces it. That’s admirable, but spare me this guy.
Producers are Mark Canton, Art Linson, John Linson, Courtney Solomon and Hackford. Sony Pictures Classics releases the Cinelou film on Friday which follows a one-week Oscar-qualifying run in December. It received no nominations.
Do you plan to see The Comedian? Let us know what you think.