The Comedian is a phony movie about funny people, starring a great actor understanding next to nothing about stand-up comedy.
Robert De Niro can play funny roles but he can't tell a joke in public and barely in character. It isn't his nature to crave attention, to overshare and exaggerate. There isn't a comical bone in De Niro's body, only comical skins occasionally stretched over it.
It isn't a promising foundation for the portrayal expected of De Niro, already stuck with an amorphous role. Jackie Burke is supposed to be a stand-up veteran, good enough to be in the Friars Club. Other comics give shout-outs from stage, invite Jackie to their tables. Someone kiss this man's ring.
Yet for the plot's purposes, Jackie is only famous for starring in a old sitcom called Eddie's Home! People call him Eddie all the time, urging him to repeat a dumb catchphrase. He only gets bookings at nostalgia shows with fellow TV fade-outs Jimmie (J.J.) Walker and Brett Butler playing themselves. There's more stand-up cameos than a Comic Relief telethon.
Jackie's act is mostly shock jokes, insults and a peculiar bit of outward introspection that might amuse if someone with better panache than De Niro did it. Is Jackie a genius or a hack? That depends on what director Taylor Hackford and a plot cobbled by four writers require at the time. The Comedian is arbitrarily literal about Jackie's career; he actually plays Hicksville, N.Y., and kills at a celebrity roast.
At a show, Jackie assaults a heckler videotaping a web cast, and gets sentenced to 100 hours of community service at a soup kitchen. There he meets Harmony (Leslie Mann), another court-ordered volunteer with markedly sharper wit and timing than this supposed old pro. They strike up a relationship, platonic at first then increasingly and queasily intimate. The Comedian takes a late turn that made me groan out loud, as if circumstances leading to it weren't unlikely enough.
The videotape of Jackie's assault goes viral and after serving a month in jail he's looking to cash in. A pitch to a web channel run by haircuts doesn't go well. Later they'll beg Jackie to host a reality show he'll quit after one degrading stunt. Another video goes viral, this one of Jackie leading a Florida seniors community in the "improvised" ditty Makin' Poopie!
Hackford sets up one awkward sequence after another: Jackie dropping insults at his lesbian niece's wedding that's sort of funny, and the celebrity roast of an aging movie star (Cloris Leachman) that definitely isn't. Before long we're sharing Edie Falco's expression of resigned pain as Jackie's manager.
The Comedian appears to exist mainly as a opportunity to reunite De Niro with favorite co-stars. Harvey Keitel brings the old heat as Harmony's father who loves "Eddie" until noticing how Jackie looks at his daughter. Charles Grodin oozes as a joke-stealing Friars Club member. Billy Crystal plays himself, as do a dozen comedians who hadn't been in a De Niro movie before.
That's a lot of wasted talent, in a rambling narrative,that feels like bar anecdotes conveyed by an actor who doesn't seem to have ever visited such a place. Movies like Mike Birbiglia's Don't Think Twice and Gillian Robespierre's Obvious Child have comedy club dirt under their fingernails. The Comedian only shows the middle one and it's clean.
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