The latest unfunny addition to Robert De Niro’s filmography.
Say what you will about David O. Russell, but there’s something that the filmmaker is able to do nowadays that very few others are – get awards-worthy performances out of Robert De Niro again. With an already spotty track record over the past few years, the legendary actor reached a new low last year with Dirty Granpda, a raunchy comedy that was neither funny nor entertaining, and you likely don’t need to look much further than that film’s supremely abysmal quality to understand what led so many to have hope in The Comedian.
They wouldn’t be wrong to do so either, since on paper, The Comedian has all the makings of being a perfectly fine film at the very least. A supposedly thirty-years-in-the-making passion project for De Niro, director Taylor Hackford’s latest project not only features an inarguably strong cast for itself, but also lets De Niro play an aging comedian with a plethora of opportunities for the actor to make a return to form with the role.
Said role is Jackie Burke, a legendary stand-up comedian who is trying to harden his stand-up act after being shoehorned into a family-friendly image for years thanks to his highly-successful sitcom, Eddie’s Home, which his audiences and fans won’t ever seem to let him move past. Opening with an audience brawl and court scene that couldn’t feel more forced if they tried, The Comedian then follows Jackie after he’s released from prison for assaulting an audience member, while simultaneously logging in his mandatory community service hours, trying to reconnect with his brother (Danny DeVito), and rejuvenate his quickly worsening career.
In there, somewhere, is a story about finding redemption in the comedy world that, if told by the right people, could have been one for the books. Instead, The Comedian feels more destined to reside on the bottom of the bargain bin, with a lifeless and unfunny feel that, like many of Hollywood’s other attempts at investigating the inner lives of successful comedians, is possessed by a frustratingly constant deluge of thoughtless anger. Jackie continuously offends, insults, and rants at the people in his life, who just seem willing and content to take it. It’s no surprise that the funniest and best moments in The Comedian then, which are few and far between, are the ones where actual comedians are shown.
That’s the thing about The Comedian, is that on top of all of its many flaws, perhaps its most damning is that it’s just not funny. Nothing Jackie does or says in the film makes a strong enough case for why he should be taken seriously again, since his “best” material seems to consist of only straightforward sexual insults towards women and racial stereotypes.
We get that nothing is off limits in a good comedy routine, but there’s a reason why Louis C.K., George Carlin, and the rest of the comedy greats are able to say what they say and still get laughs, and that’s because of where they build all of their bits from. Even in the most zaniest moments, the best comedians are the ones who are able to connect everything back to relatable questions and situations that we all have in our lives, but The Comedian doesn’t think so. Jackie just yells insults at the crowd, and expects them to thank him for it. You might not be surprised if you ever find yourself sympathizing more with Jackie’s hecklers than you do the man himself.
But even despite those many, many flaws, The Comedian still manages to mine solid performances from its cast members. In fact, aside from Jackie’s issues as a likable character, De Niro brings enough dimension and charisma to the role that you’re reminded how much of a treasure the actor truly is, especially if he’s able to make a character like Jackie Burke even remotely more interesting than just flat out insufferable. One can only wonder what he could have done with The Comedian if its titular character wasn’t so by-the-numbers and cliched.
Leslie Mann stands out as well as Harmony, a fellow ex-con who Jackie meets during his community service hours, and with whom he instantly forges a romantic connection. The character has its issues, as do all of the film’s, but Mann is likable and relatable enough to make Harmony one of the only consistent bright spots in it, even when The Comedian threatens to tear down every last redeeming aspect it has in its tiresome third act, which feels tacked on and unnecessary all the way through.
With that being said, neither Mann nor De Niro’s performances are able to save The Comedian from being a cliched, overlong and frustrating mess of a film. Hackford shows little invention or energy as a filmmaker, drowning even the film’s flashier stand-up segments under the same wave of boring set-ups that he does to the rest of it. On the surface, The Comedian may appear to have an admirably old fashioned quality to it, but it’s not long before you realize that there’s nothing really artful about anything it’s doing. A more fitting word would be lazy.