While there are a few good laughs to be had in “The Comedian “ – and great cameos by myriad comics – Taylor Hackford’s film isn’t exactly a comedy.
It’s a portrait of an aging entertainer, unfortunately hampered by the tired trope of a May-December romance and the implication that men find redemption in success while women find it in motherhood. Such outdated elements detract from an otherwise interesting character study and heartfelt love letter to New York City and the camaraderie among its comedians.
Robert De Niro is Jackie Burke, a once-famous sitcom star who yearns for respect as a standup comic. He resents his fans for associating him with the character he used to play on the hit “Eddie’s Home,” and he bristles when they call him Eddie. Jackie isn’t always kind to his long-suffering manager (Edie Falco, disappointingly underused) and insults the patrons at the small-town clubs where he performs.
After tussling with a heckler at one of his shows, Jackie is sentenced to jail and community service. He’s working at a New York City soup kitchen when he meets Harmony (Leslie Mann), who’s also clocking community service hours. She tells Jackie that she watched “Eddie’s Home” as a kid. It was her dad’s favorite show.
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Jackie eventually asks Harmony out, and she tells him straight away that she won’t have sex with him (handsome as he may be, there’s an obvious 30-year age difference between them). He takes her to a comedy club, and the friendly outing turns into a quid pro quo: She agrees to be his date for his niece’s wedding if he'll accompany her to a birthday dinner with her smarmy, overbearing father, Mac (Harvey Keitel).
The wedding scene – which goes on way too long (do we really need to see the wedding band perform two songs?) – hints that Jackie may have a tender heart under his gruff exterior.
But the awkward and ill-conceived dinner with dad sets Harmony up as a pawn between the two men: Will she sleep with Jackie, who declares his intention to do so directly to her father, or will she give into Mac’s pressure to move back to Florida to work at the old-age home he owns? It’s gross and trite to have these old guys competing for the younger woman’s affections (especially since one of them is her dad), and it’s an odd conundrum for a woman in her 40s to be facing in 2017.
But this isn’t Harmony’s story, it’s Jackie’s. De Niro was on board early: His friend Art Linson, who came up with the story concept, co-wrote the screenplay and produced the film, created the character for him.
Though Jackie bears some resemblance to Jack Byrnes from the “Fockers” films, De Niro does more than put on a sour mug here. He sells Jackie as a standup, and spent months with real comics to prepare for the part. Insult comic and frequent celebrity roaster Jeff Ross helped write Jackie’s routines.
The cast is a hoot, including Danny DeVito and Patti LuPone as Jackie’s put-upon brother and sister-in-law, Charles Grodin as chief of the Friars Club and Cloris Leachman as a grand dame of comedy, plus cameos by comics such as Hannibal Burress, Richard Belzer, Brett Butler, Billy Crystal, Gilbert Gottfried, Jim Norton and Jessica Kirson.
“The Comedian” is all about standup, the culture among comics and what makes them assume that vulnerable and powerful position behind the microphone each night. That’s such rich territory, why muck it up with misguided romance?
Cast: Robert De Niro, Leslie Mann, Edie Falco, Harvey Keitel, Danny DeVito, Patti LuPone, Charles Grodin, Cloris Leachman
Director: Taylor Hackford
Rated R (crude sexual references and language throughout)