This film was reviewed as first seen at this year’s AFI Fest presented by Audi.
The character of the insult comic is one ripe for investigation: what life events drive someone to pursue a career in stand-up comedy – and more fascinating still – what drives someone to pursue the professional career of an insult comic? Unfortunately, “The Comedian,” the story of an aging insult comic who struggles – or more aptly, shmoozes – his way through his later years for celebrity relevancy, doesn’t attempt to answer these questions. In fact, much like his more recent outings including “The Intern” and “Bad Grandpa,” Robert De Niro’s latest ends up being nothing more than another vehicle for the legendary screen actor to win hearts by cashing in on the light laugh of an old man living in a young world.
If there’s any place that stand-up comedy would need to be told, it’s New York City, which “The Comedian” sets itself in and employs like another character in the film, splashy jazz music romanticizing the city at every corner. It’s where quick-witted insult king Jackie (DeNiro) lives and works, a creature born from the city that never sleeps. Well, not exactly the city, since his pedigree has taken a hit. Jackie’s at a point where he takes the subway on a snowy night to get to a crappy stand-up gig, and frustrated as he may be, as long as he’s making his insults, he takes it all in stride. And while his shocking brand of sarcasm doesn’t phase his manager Miller (Edie Falco), it’s always the case for his audience who expect the sitcom stylings of his infamous Archie Bunker-like character Eddie from “Eddie’s Home” from years before. It’s at one such crappy comedy club that, as Jackie is riling the crowd, an audience member baits him and leads a firey Jackie into a scuffle, which is also captured on someone’s phone. While Jackie is booked and serves time in the clink, his video goes viral, so when he gets out of the clink, he’s ready to start looking for more gigs.
Where an inciting first act incident like a stint in the clink could propel a story and character to re-examine a rock-bottom life, “The Comedian” only sets up this jail time to have a newly-released Jackie ask for money from his brother (Danny Devito) and do community service, which leads him to meet and connect with Harmony (Leslie Mann), a woman also stalled out at this stage in her life and much to the chagrin of her over-protective father Mac (Harvey Keitel). There’s an easy breezy banter that defines their affections and connection, and Leslie Mann plays nice, as if she’s all too familiar with knowing how to stroke the ego of a comedic partner (she’s married to Judd Apatow in real life).
Within the formulaic beats of the pair’s innocent-enough courting are middling low-stake career pit-stops that Jackie takes to re-spark his career, including unsuccessfully pitching a scripted series to a millennial-aged cable channel, bombing a dais-spot for Friar’s Club awardee May Conner (Cloris Leachman) (which ends in a morbid state), and another unsuccessful reality show hosting gig. Except since the film never establishes Jackie as ever having been at any sort of real low point, it’s impossible to know what the motivation is for why he’s trying to achieve any of this at all. Where exactly is Jackie at this point in his life, and where is he trying to go? You’ll have to be satisfied with the scattered, dirty jokes here, because in “The Comedian,” all we need to know is that Jackie is just one of those politically-incorrect people from a time bygone who should be loved despite himself.
The best version of “The Comedian,” would have been a character piece that shows a person past the prime of his life and trying to get that back without looking foolish or imploding first – like “The Wrestler,” if Mickey Rourke’s biggest dream was to play New York’s famous The Comedy Cellar (who knows if a more in-depth examining was ever developed, as this has been De Niro’s passion project for years). Director Taylor Hackford should have tapped into the inner grief of artistically-tortured artists that made his Academy Award-winning “Ray” so compelling and time-standing. Unfortunately, Hackford doesn’t understand or tap into what could have been a stirring and worthwhile examination of the tragic life of the insult comic, leaving “The Comedian” to ask for laughs with material that bombs.
“The Comedian” is 119 minutes.