Remember in 2015 when Al Pacino made that embarrassing comedy ‘Danny Collins’ in which he played an aging rock star learning how to love again? No? Doesn’t surprise me. It was terrible. I wish I could forget it too. Anyhoo, now Robert De Niro has made an unofficial sequel about an aging comedian who learns to love again.
‘The Comedian’ may be mildly better than ‘Danny Collins’, but only mildly. The big problem here is that audiences are supposed to be impressed by De Niro’s shock comedy chops despite the fact that barely any of his jokes actually land. It’s the big challenge for any movie about a fictional artist. The art had better be as good as the characters keep claiming or the whole house of cards falls apart. That’s doubly hard with any movie about a comedian, because if the audience doesn’t laugh along with everyone on screen, that’s impossible to overcome. There are things in ‘The Comedian’ that actually kind of work. De Niro’s act sadly isn’t one of them and that’s a massive problem this limp entertainment never even comes close to overcoming.
De Niro stars as Jackie Burke, an insult comic made famous by a successful run as a sitcom dad many moons ago. Now he’s stuck doing crappy standup gigs trying to keep his career afloat. One night, his manager (Edie Falco) shoves him on stage for a nostalgia night and he ends up getting in a fistfight with a heckler. That lands him some jail time, but a clip of the fight hits YouTube and goes viral, so he may well be primed for a comeback.
While working Community Service at a soup kitchen after getting released from the clink, Burke meets Harmony (Leslie Mann), an equally damaged recent divorcee. They fall for each other, which irritates her father (Harvey Keitel) to no end, but at least gives Burke a shot at redemption. Yeah, this is one of those stories where a battered old soul learns to love and live again. Do you think that might help him reconnect with his brother (Danny DeVito)? Or maybe his new knack for getting in trouble on the internet will kick off a career comeback? Who knows?!
Well, you’ll know. You’ll guess pretty much every scene in ‘The Comedian’ before it happens. Weirdly, the film was something of a passion project that De Niro has nursed along for years. There are easy ways to read into why that might be the case. The least flattering is that the actor has spent the last 15 years desperately trying to become a comedic actor, so it only makes sense that his dream would be to play a successful comedian (not like the unsuccessful one that he portrayed in Scorsese’s ‘The King of Comedy’, a masterpiece that hangs over this movie like a noose). More than that, it’s likely De Niro identified with Jackie Burke’s manufactured hard luck story, playing a fallen star so hamstrung by his past that he can’t seem to find a place for himself in the present. The best portions of ‘The Comedian’ drip with a certain melancholy. It’s a lighter version of Louis CK’s brilliant TV series, showing a comic fumble and spark to life only when he can mock the world forever driving him down.
When he’s not on stage, De Niro’s even quite good in the film. Whenever he’s marching through the New York streets getting crapped on by life and trading barbs with Leslie Mann or Danny DeVito, the movie plays like a bitter treat. De Niro brings a looseness to the role that’s refreshing. He’s having fun, even if his character has barely more than two dimensions. He has a nice rapport with Mann, and it’s a joy to watch him and Keitel share the screen again for some machismo standoffs.
The script from a parade of writers (including Richard LaGravenese, who likely wrote the best scenes, and roast comic Jeff Ross who likely wrote the few decent jokes) works best when it’s depicting lovable losers bumping into each other to share a few laughs before life knocks them down again. Anytime the plot or standup takes over… that’s another story.
Unfortunately, none of the writers were able to come up with much resembling a decent narrative. Director Taylor Hackford (‘Ray’ and a bunch of crap) guides this creaky vessel straight into melodrama by the third act. The attempts to bring old shock vaudeville comedy into the internet and deep cable TV are embarrassingly out of touch. De Niro might be able to pose well with a microphone and scream masturbation jokes with passion, but he doesn’t have a particularly strong comedic voice and his jokes fall flat. (The fact that a parade of actual great comics like Hannibal Buress and Jim Norton show up in cameo roles and deliver good bits from their act sure doesn’t help.)
What we have here is a movie about a painfully unfunny comedian who we’re supposed to embrace as hilarious, and that’s an obstacle that ‘The Comedian’ never overcomes. It’s true that casting makes or breaks most movies, but nothing sinks them faster than a lousy script. Unfortunately, ‘The Comedian’ just can’t decide what it wants to be long enough to settle into much of anything. The movie merely stumbles along, occasionally suggesting interesting paths that it never follows before devolving into a tedious story that didn’t need to be told yet again. Don’t bother.