It’s not easy to grow old gracefully in the entertainment business, and the chance to both explore and poke fun at that uncomfortable truth may have been exactly what drew Robert De Niro to “The Comedian.” But despite the actor’s sincerest efforts in the role of a stand-up comic still trying to distance himself from the ’90s sitcom that made him famous, there’s a fundamental miscalculation to the casting that drags down an already lumpy shaggy-dog dramedy.
De Niro’s fans may be hoping for a spiritual successor to his classic Martin Scorsese dark comedy “The King of Comedy,” but “The Comedian” falls much closer to actor’s forgettable showbiz satire also penned by writer-producer Art Linson, “What Just Happened?” In fact, that’s a question viewers may ask themselves almost any time De Niro’s character, Jackie Berkowitz, grabs a mic.
There’s a strange disconnect between the scenes of Jackie awkwardly performing comedy routines, which play like De Niro gamely reading material on “Saturday Night Live,” and the more authentic moments of Jackie going about his life as a seventysomething man who still has a lot left to prove. Even though De Niro never quite sells the stand-up, the movie still may have worked if it surrounded him with characters worthy of the actors playing them.
In addition to Linson, the script is credited to Jeff Ross, Richard LaGravenese, and Lewis Friedman — and while only Linson and Ross worked together, the quartet cobbled together a very loose narrative that kicks off with Jackie assaulting a heckler at a “TV Nostalgia Night” club gig. After a month in prison, Jackie is released to community service, and that’s where he meets Harmony (Leslie Mann), a much younger free spirit who landed in hot water for assaulting an ex.
While they establish a father-daughter rapport, there’s also something creepily romantic to their relationship and the push-pull between the pair becomes the film’s emotional throughline. Other characters like Jackie’s put-upon brother (Danny DeVito), who runs a diner with his wife (Patti LuPone), Jackie’s far-too-tolerant manager (Edie Falco), and Harmony’s sleazy father (Harvey Keitel) pop in and out without ever gaining much definition.
There’s no question it’s a strong ensemble — Charles Grodin, Cloris Leachman, and Lois Smith only bolster that status despite characters that never quite go anywhere, and Billy Crystal has a modestly amusing cameo as himself — as actors are understandably drawn to the allure of working opposite De Niro. Hackford’s unfussy direction also puts the emphasis on performance, but “The Comedian” remains an acting vehicle in search of a driver.
Partly because De Niro’s delivery of the comic material never quite connects, it’s hard to discern if the audience is meant to root for Jackie’s comeback or view him as tragically misguided. Either way, Jackie keeps unintentionally getting attention through viral videos, and in the movie’s most bizarre sequence, he regales a retirement community with a scatalogical reworking of “Makin’ Whoopee” dubbed “Makin’ Poopy” that apparently draws millions of views in a remixed version on YouTube.
Several films, from “Punchline” to “Funny People” (which also featured Mann), have mined the lives of stand-up comedians for inherent pathos with more credibility and insight, while recent TV series including “Louie” and “BoJack Horseman” have created entire worlds for multi-layered characters struggling to stay relevant at their craft. Even with a bona fide icon at its center, “The Comedian” doesn’t dig deep enough to add anything substantial to the subgenre.