“The Comedian” – Although Robert De Niro is known for starring in gritty dramas, he is not a complete stranger to comedies with “Midnight Run” (1988), “Wag the Dog” (1997), “Analyze This” (1999), and “Meet the Parents” (2000) proudly standing on his resume. He also famously played an unforgettable stand-up comic named Rupert Pupkin – who also doubled as a misfit – in Martin Scorsese’s purposely uncomfortable drama “The King of Comedy” (1982). In 2017, De Niro dons another stand-up role in the new comedy aptly named, “The Comedian”.
One of the wonderful breeding grounds for comics is New York City, and this is where Jackie Burke (De Niro) calls home, a place where everyone knows his name. Actually, when most people see Jackie, they immediately call him Eddie, because 30 years prior, he starred in the widely-loved sitcom, “Eddie’s Home”. So, Jackie not only has two names, but also two homes. Three decades, however, seems like ages ago, and at 67 years young, Jackie still plays the comedy circuit to make a living. Sitcom royalties that may have found their way into his pockets, are long spent, or perhaps, he never saw them due to bad deals.
One of the great deals with director Taylor Hackford’s (“Against All Odds” (1983), “Ray” (2004)) picture is the truly amazing cast, which includes Harvey Keitel, Leslie Mann, Edie Falco, Danny DeVito, Cloris Leachman, Charles Grodin, and a humongous list of comics who make brief cameos, including Brett Butler and Jimmie Walker. De Niro is surrounded with a vast amount of talent, but the questions are: Is he believable as a comic and does the script hold up? The answers are “Yes” and “Sort of”, respectively.
Since Jackie still works long hours and needs to occasionally borrow money from his brother, Jimmy (DeVito), one senses that he does not regularly play by the rules of societal decorum, and it is reflected in his act. On stage, he is unquestionably vulgar and an equal opportunity insulter, meaning that he will tear down anyone, and topics of marriage, religion, sexuality, and bathroom humor are regularly explored. Sitting in his regular hang out, the Comedy Cellar, his material feels perfectly within the normal confines of taste, but when he shifts his act to other locales, like a Palm Springs adult community or his niece’s wedding, the cringe factor dramatically spikes.
This is done on purpose, but it also speaks to Jackie’s personal story, which unfortunately, the film never explores. Instead, the script – written by four people (which is usually a bad sign), including famous roast comedian Jeffrey Ross – shuttles Jackie between a series of circumstances, like a stint in a soup kitchen and a reality TV gameshow, that do not really tie together, other than he is just making his way and trying to earn a living during his golden years.
“The Comedian” is not a great film, nor is it a hilarious one, but it definitely and proudly owns some fun moments, peppered throughout the lengthy one-hour 59-minute runtime. Jackie’s fling/friendship with a scorned 40-something Harmony (Leslie Mann), bristling conflict with her father (Keitel), brotherly gymnastics over coffee with Jimmy, and argumentative career turns with his agent (Falco) are the most memorable, and the previously-mentioned head turning cameos continually pop on screen. It feels like a must-see for truly diehard De Niro fans and a possible matinee for anyone else, because hey, it is not every day that the man does comedy.
Image credits: Sony Pictures Classics; Trailer credits: ONE Media