When The Comedian, starring Robert De Niro as a past-his-prime-time stand-up, is onstage, it generates enough humor to warrant its title. It helps that De Niro’s character, Jackie Burke, gets an able assist from such real-life comedians as Hannibal Buress, Jim Norton and Brett Butler.
But when The Comedian lurches offstage, it stumbles into unfunny TV sitcom melodrama and never recovers. That’s a shame because a cast that includes Patti LuPone, Billy Crystal, Harvey Keitel, Edie Falco, Charles Grodin, Danny DeVito and Cloris Leachman deserves better.
As the film opens, Burke — whose mood is as foul as his mouth — is playing half-empty rooms around New York City for people who want him to just regurgitate lines from his long-ago sitcom, Eddie’s Home. He blames his agent (Falco), but knows deep down that the fault really rests with him.
So when a heckler and his wife, who record their confrontations with comedians and put them online, start yelling abuse at Burke, the funnyman can’t let it slide. He attacks the man with a microphone, and not in a metaphorical sense.
The confrontation lands Burke in jail (a plot point the film surprisingly doesn’t find much humor in). Ultimately, he gets community service at a soup kitchen, where he meets another broken soul doing her time, Harmony Schiltz (Leslie Mann, This Is 40). Despite the yawning age difference, the two strike up a friendship that slowly deepens into something more.
If director Taylor Hackford (who peaked in the ’80s with An Officer and a Gentleman, Against All Odds, The Idolmaker and White Nights) and his squad of four screenwriters had kept Jackie and Harmony in New York City and focused on their relationship, The Comedian might have stood a chance.
The beautifully jazzy, rainy-day-in-Manhattan score from Terence Blanchard makes for a graceful backdrop to the easy rapport between De Niro and Mann. There are a couple of fun offstage moments, as when the two show up together at a relative’s wedding and Jackie launches into his raunchy act, much to the consternation of Jackie’s uptight sister-in-law (a wonderful LuPone).
Of course, there’s always the argument that Hollywood wouldn’t be as likely to cast a 73-year-old actress to play someone falling in love — or at least a really serious “like” — with a man nearly 30 years her junior. Still, Hollywood sexism aside and within this movie’s universe, the two do seem to have a spark.
But that is soon extinguished thanks to a needless curveball thrown by Harmony’s dad, Mac (Keitel), because then the film winds up in Palm Beach, Fla., and that’s when it sinks into a sitcom swamp. A didn’t-see-that-coming plot twist doesn’t help matters either.
By the time Jackie is leading the residents of a retirement village in a sing-along of Makin’ Poopy — sung to the tune of Makin’ Whoopee — The Comedian is far more exasperating than entertaining.
There have been several striking films about the world of comedy. Robert De Niro was even in one of them ( The King of Comedy) and, more recently, Mike Birbiglia’s sharply observed Don’t Think Twice from last year is well worth seeking out.
Unfortunately, The Comedian is not one of them.