In Taylor Hackford’s new film, The Comedian, Robert De Niro stars as Jackie Burke, a formerly famous standup comic whose peak came in the form of a starring role in a sitcom in what appears to have been the late 80s/early 90s who now scrapes by doing signings and showing up at far flung clubs for nostalgia bills with the likes of Jimmie Walker and Brett Butler (just two of the many comics who appear as themselves). Given that one of the credited screenwriters is standup veteran Jeffrey Ross, one would expect pro-level insight and detail. Any amount of such that may have been on the page, however, fails to translate to the screen. Starting with the forced and awkward inciting incident at an under-attended club and continuing throughout this entire, hard-to-stomach affair, it actually seems as if Hackford and De Niro have never themselves attended a comedy show.
After the events of that night, Jackie finds himself doing court-ordered community service. It’s there that he meets Harmony (Leslie Mann), who’s also paying her debt to society. Through their friendship–and possibly more–Jackie begins to regain control of his career and of himself.
Mann has always brought an indelible blend of unique idiosyncrasies and everywoman frustrations to her roles that have made her a singular performer who is nevertheless always relatable. Harmony is another in a long line of strong performances and is, frankly, the only consistently watchable aspect of The Comedian. De Niro brings some pathos to Jackie’s day to day life of insulting others and hating himself but is so thoroughly unconvincing as a comedian that the movie’s entire premise is undercut. The rest of the cast is full of heavy hitters, with crucial roles played by Danny DeVito, Harvey Keitel, Edie Falco and Patti LuPone along with minor turns by Cloris Leachman and Charles Grodin.
The best performances, though, are the ones by the actual standups who do material on stage and bust each other’s balls off it. Hannibal Buress, Jim Norton, Nick Di Paolo, Jessica Kirson and Sheng Wang could more easily hold an audience’s attention for two hours than this movie can, and without the lame plot.
It would be bad enough if this were just a vanity project for De Niro, who has reportedly been trying to bring it to life for the better part of a decade. Unfortunately, it also has a point to make; one that, unsurprisingly, is as bitterly out of touch as Jackie himself. The Comedian is the embodiment of every aging hack comic who has complained that today’s audiences are too sensitive and politically correct. And it’s just as useless.
Somewhere out there, there is a scalding satire to be made about how identity politics and social justice warrioring can override one’s sense of humor. The Comedian, though, which seems to think the rise of basic cable channels is a new phenomenon, is too far behind the times to even understand those terms. All of its references have gray haris. It’s going to be hard to be shaken from the status quo by a movie that’s still real pissed off about Fear Factor.