Written by Art Linson, Jeffrey Ross, Richard LaGravenese, and Lewis Friedman; from a story by Art Linson
Directed by Taylor Hackford
When a film’s title tells you that the main character (or characters) generate laughs for a living, you know you’re in for a serious drama. But not too serious. Just as a biopic about a musician will contain music, a drama about funny people should at times be funny. Two kinds of entertainment in one.
The Comedian provides both drama and laughs, but it provides neither of them in spades. As dramas go, it’s a bit on the trite side. And the jokes fall flat as often as they hit target. To be fair, I believe that many of them were intended to fall flat. More on that later.
Robert De Niro proved himself a great dramatic actor decades ago. For those paying attention, he’s also proved his comic talents in movies like Brazil and Analyze This. In The Comedian, he gets to play both sides of the street as a stand-up comedian dealing with the miserable way his life and career have both turned out.
He plays Jackie Burke, a once-popular comic specializing in adult material. Long ago, he starred in a hit TV sitcom. He wasn’t happy doing it, but people still remember him primarily from that show. Strangers ask him to repeat his signature catchphrase. He hates it.
With multiple divorces behind him and shrinking popularity, he’s not a happy man – or a rich one. He must go to his brother (Danny Devito) for money, which means facing his brother’s wife, who hates him.
Among other things, he has anger issues. He punches out a heckler, and then refuses to formally apologize in court. He’s sentenced to 30 days in jail.
One would expect that such an incident would jumpstart the flagging career of a once-famous shock comic. The punch even went viral on YouTube. But because a revived career early in the movie would mess up the plot, his agent must struggle to get him minor work.
Jackie is clearly not in the business for the money. His sentence includes community service in a soup kitchen, and he entertains the homeless while he feeds them. In another scene, he entertains the denizens of an old age home who all seem to love his dirty jokes. When he’s called on to talk at his niece’s big lesbian wedding, his improvised routine is disgusting, inappropriate, and often funny. The brides’ love it; his sister-in-law hates it.
The comedy scenes are, as a rule, realistic. Some jokes are funny, some aren’t – and that goes for the audience onscreen as much as the one in the movie theater.
While working in the soup kitchen he meets and befriends Harmony (Leslie Mann). She looks half his age, but this is a movie, so we know that they will fall in love. In the film’s favor, the relationship takes a very surprising and believable turn.
Every significant character in the film is Jewish, which is not surprising in a story about a New York stand-up comic. But there’s a problem here. De Niro is a brilliant actor. I can easily believe him as a once-famous, still talented, down-on-his-luck comic. But I have never believed De Niro as a Jew. Not in Once Upon a Time in America, and not now.
The Comedian is one of those feel-good dramas, which are inherently not realistic. For all its dark moments, it’s generally upbeat. And funny.