You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘The Comedian’

Robert De Niro plays an aging stand-up comic looking for a big comeback.

Robert De Niro, Leslie Mann, Danny DeVito, Edie Falco, Harvey Keitel, Charles Grodin, Patti LuPone, Cloris Leachman, Veronica Ferres, Lois Smith, Billy Crystal, Jim Norton, Beth Malone.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1967614/

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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'The Comedian'

Reviewed at AFI Fest (Special Screenings), Nov. 11, 2016. Running time: 120 MIN.

Production: A Sony Pictures Classics release of a Cinelou presentation of a Cinelou Films, Linson Entertainment, Anvil Films production. Producers: Art Linson, John Linson, Mark Canton, Courtney Solomon, Taylor Hackford. Executive producers: Scott Karol, Wayne Marc Godfrey, Robert Jones, Iain Abrahams, Fredy Bush, Dennis Pelino, Mark Axelowitz, Lawrence Smith, Peter Sobiloff.

Crew: Director: Taylor Hackford. Screenwriters: Art Linson, Jeff Ross, Richard LaGravenese, Lewis Friedman. Camera (color): Oliver Stapleton. Editor: Mark Warner.

With: Robert De Niro, Leslie Mann, Danny DeVito, Edie Falco, Harvey Keitel, Charles Grodin, Patti LuPone, Cloris Leachman, Veronica Ferres, Lois Smith, Billy Crystal, Jim Norton, Beth Malone.

More Film

  • "Jade Dynasty" in front at the

    China Box Office: 'Jade Dynasty' in Front Ahead of Mixed Competition

    With “Jade Dynasty” in front, Chinese-made action and Asian animation films led the way at the China box office over the past weekend. Although a few American titles are in play, they’ve failed to attract a crowd.  Chinese action fantasy “Jade Dynasty” led the weekend box office in its debut with $38.1 million, figures from [...]

  • The Painted Bird

    Venice Competition Film 'The Painted Bird' Is Czech Entry in Oscar Race

    Václav Marhoul’s “The Painted Bird,” which world premiered at the Venice Film Festival in the main competition and also played at the Toronto Film Festival in Special Presentations, has been selected as the Czech Republic’s entry for the 92nd Academy Awards in the international feature film category. The pic follows the journey of an unnamed [...]

  • Pakistan Picks Freshman Effort 'Laal Kabootar'

    Pakistan Picks Freshman Effort 'Laal Kabootar' as Its Oscar Entry

    Pakistan’s Academy Selection Committee has chosen “Laal Kabootar” as its candidate for the Oscars’ international feature film category. Directed by first-time helmer Kamal Khan, the gangland thriller set in Karachi’s underbelly follows the events that transpire when a woman in search of her husband’s killer is thrown together with a cab driver and petty criminal [...]

  • Atlantis

    Toronto Film Review: 'Atlantis'

    “It took you 10 years to cleanse this region of Soviet propaganda and myths,” says one character to another in “Atlantis,” going on to suggest that the devastation now left behind may never be “cleansed” at all. A strikingly bleak vision of a near future in which Ukraine has won its war with Russia but [...]

  • Beyonce Knowles'The Lion King' film premiere,

    ABC Announces Behind-the-Scenes Special for Beyoncé's 'Lion King' LP

    ABC has announced a new behind-the-scenes look into the making of Beyoncé’s “The Lion King: The Gift” LP, which is set to air September 16 on ABC at 10 p.m. EST. Titled “Beyoncé Presents: Making the Gift,” the new hour-long special will allow viewers to “experience the process” behind the “Lion King” companion album, according [...]

  • Jason Lei Howden, Samara Weaving and

    Daniel Radcliffe On Acting With Weapons Nailed To Your Hands

    How did “Guns Akimbo” director and writer Jason Lei Howden convince Daniel Radcliffe to play a character with guns nailed to his hands? Easy, he sent him the script. Radcliffe joined Howden and “Ready or Not’s” breakout star Samara Weaving in the Variety’s Toronto Film Festival studio, presented by AT&T to talk the limits of [...]

  • Box Office: It Chapter Two Maintains

    Box Office: 'It: Chapter Two' Continues International Reign With $47 Million

    Pennywise’s reign of terror hasn’t wavered: Warner Bros.’ “It Chapter Two” maintained first place on box office charts, led by another strong showing overseas. The sequel, based on Stephen King’s horror novel, generated another $47 million at the international box office for a foreign tally of $169 million. After two weeks of release, “It Chapter [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content