THE COMEDIAN * * 1 / 2
Starring Robert De Niro, Leslie Mann, Edie Falco, Danny DeVito and Harvey Keitel. Screenplay by Art Linson, Jeff Ross, Richard LaGravenese and Lewis Friedman. Directed by Taylor Hackford.
A years-in-development dream project for star Robert De Niro and legendary producer Art Linson, The Comedian is a curiously likable misfire, gathering together a dream cast for a head-scratching lark that constantly misplaces whatever thread was supposed to be connecting this series of admittedly entertaining scenes. Boasting four credited screenwriters who I’m guessing were never in the same room at the same time, the movie is constantly at odds with itself — lumbering back and forth between a gritty, downbeat seventies character study and a slick, eighties-style showbiz comeback comedy. Either way it’s an anachronism, but not an unenjoyable one.
De Niro is back in rare giving-a-shit mode as Jackie Burke, a Rickles-esque insult comic these days barely coasting on the fumes of a seventies sitcom in which he starred as an Archie Bunker-ish blowhard. He performs for pittances on the nostalgia circuit with guys like Jimmie Walker (gamely playing himself) and makes life miserable for his long-suffering agent (Edie Falco). One night Jackie punches out a heckler and inadvertently becomes a YouTube sensation, for which he receives a brief jail sentence and an even briefer career boost.
Working off his community service at the local mission he meets Leslie Mann’s wondrously named Harmony Schlitz, a forty-something trainwreck with severe daddy issues whose self-destructive tendencies fall neatly in sync with Jackie’s. Mann is too often stuck playing a shrill den mother in her husband Judd Apatow’s movies, but here she gets to be the reckless one and strikes some genuine sparks with De Niro. The film has great fun with the ickiness of their age difference, casting Bobby’s longtime sparring partner Harvey Keitel as Harmony’s overprotective dad for a few gloriously uncomfortable encounters.
Catnip for De Niro-ologists, The Comedian reunites the actor with some of his most memorable co-stars. It’s a kick to see him once again hating Charles Grodin’s guts, while a short elevator ride with Billy Crystal is a tiny masterpiece of condescension and polite, mutual loathing. Of course in Scorsese’s King Of Comedy De Niro played one of the worst standups in cinema history, and his mic skills honestly aren’t all that much improved here, clenched and shouty with the kind of subpar material that too often plagues movies about comedians.
He’s way better in the offstage scenes, firing off brutal, quicksilver put-downs and grimly sizing up the bitter end of an only semi-distinguished career. There’s a real anger in De Niro’s performance, an edge of danger that director Taylor Hackford has no idea what to do with, smoothing everything over with Terence Blanchard’s audio wallpaper jazz score and glossy second unit footage of New York City streets.
It’s hard not to read into the palpable self-hatred with which Jackie makes lame poopie jokes for the semi-conscious denizens of a retirement home, remembering that this is the star of Little Fockers and Dirty Grandpa. You get the feeling that De Niro and Linson spent so long trying to get this movie made because during their lifetimes in show business they got to know a lot of Jackie Burkes, and if The Comedian’s sappy, unconvincing ending pulls a few too many punches it may just be a case of “there but for the grace of God.”