6 February 2017 | dave-mcclain
"The Comedian" is sometimes funny and often uncomfortable to watch, but it's an interesting character study.
If you think about it, Robert De Niro is a very funny guy! Starting right before the turn of the century, he started playing off of the perception that he's super intense by doing almost as many comedies as dramas – movies like "Dirty Grandpa", "The Family", "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle" and, of course, the "Analyze This" and "Meet the Parents" films. Still, funny isn't the first adjective that comes to mind when most Movie Fans hear the legendary actor's name. And that's understandable. The most lauded period in his career was in the 1970s, when he was filming dramas like "Mean Streets", "The Godfather: Part II", "Taxi Driver", "The Deer Hunter" and "Raging Bull", but De Niro himself feels that he has a sense of humor that has helped him in his work. As he has said, "I've always done comedies. There were comic elements in 'Mean Streets' and even 'Taxi Driver'. And I did 'The King of Comedy'. I've always had what I consider to be a good sense of humor." That last film, which was released in 1982, is partly a dark comedy, but even more of a drama (and presages De Niro's 1990s stalker roles in "Cape Fear" and "The Fan") but he IS a comedian in "The King of Comedy". In 2016's "The Comedian" (R, 1:59), De Niro plays a different kind of comic. The latter film has less emphasis on the dark and more on the comedy. As in "The King of Comedy" De Niro's titular comedian has serious personal issues, but this role is less like that delusional character and more like early 2016's hilariously inappropriate "Dirty Grandpa".
De Niro's 2016 cinematic comedian is a senior citizen with a serious attitude problem – and a seriously funny schtick – both in terms of his jokes and his outrageous antics. De Niro plays Jackie Burke, a sitcom star from the 1980s who is still struggling to break free from "Eddie", his show's police officer family man character – and his popular catchphrase ("Hey, Arleeeeen"). A woman called Miller (Edie Falco), Jackie's long-suffering agent (and daughter of the agent he had early in his career), gets him a stand-up gig as part of a nostalgia show featuring comics who had previously starred in sitcoms (including Jimmie Walker and Brett Butler, as themselves). Jackie's self-loathing boils over when he realizes that an audience member (Happy Anderson) is heckling so it can be taped and posted as a webisode. Jackie comes down into the audience, gets into an altercation with the heckler and punches him with the mic, bloodying the heckler's face. During the resulting court appearance, Jackie refuses to properly apologize for the incident and comically insults the man instead, earning 30 days in jail for contempt of court.
When Jackie is back out on the streets of New York, his life is even more of a mess than before his comedy club incident. Miller has a hard time booking much of anything for her acerbic client and Jackie visits his younger brother, Jimmy (Danny DeVito), and Jimmy's disapproving wife, Florence (Patti LuPone), to give him a loan until he can get something going. Jackie also still has to perform the 100 hours of community service that was part of his original plea deal. He pays this part of his debt to society at a soup kitchen where he serves the homeless and keeps them entertained with an impromptu stream of ribald humor. This is also where he meets Harmony Schiltz (Leslie Mann), who is working off an assault charge of her own, while being harassed by her rich father (Harvey Keitel) who insists that she come back to Florida with him. While Harmony and Jackie strike up an unlikely friendship, he finds himself getting back on track after some videos of various unplanned public antics start to go viral.
"The Comedian" is sometimes funny and often uncomfortable to watch, but it's an interesting character study. Jackie isn't easy to like – for the other characters in his life, for the members of his various audiences or for the real-life Movie Fans watching this film
but his struggles for respect and relevance, for career success on his own terms and for maybe even a little bit of love, are challenges to which we can all relate. The stand-up routines, which alternate between planned and impromptu, are often humorous, sometimes off-putting and always raw and politically incorrect. The real-life comics (including Billy Crystal, Cloris Leachman and Charles Grodin), some playing themselves and some playing colleagues of the title character, add realism and a few laughs to the story, but Taylor Hackford's direction feels uneven. De Niro's performance is typically outstanding and, as he has been so many times before, is pretty funny – even in the midst of his character's personal and professional suffering. Unfortunately, there's a bit of suffering for us Movie Fans too as we struggle do decide how we feel about the main character, endure a few too many awkward moments and find ourselves wondering (much like many of Jackie's audience members in the film) how funny he actually is – and if it's okay to laugh at his boundary-pushing jokes and actions. "The Comedian" makes us laugh and suggests that we think, but requires that we put a little too much effort into deciding how we feel about the darkly comedic script and its often disagreeable characters. "B-"