The Comedian: Far more sour than sweet

DeNiro as stand-up comic drops the mic and insults us all.

click to enlarge Harvey Keitel and Robert DeNiro in "The Comedian" -
Harvey Keitel and Robert DeNiro in "The Comedian"

If you remember Robert DeNiro’s brilliant and iconic role as Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy (1983), you may go to his most recent film expecting similar insight and nuance into the inner life of a stand-up comic. But in The Comedian, directed by Taylor Hackford (An Office and a Gentleman, Ray, The Devil’s Advocate), instead of Rupert Pupkin, you get DeNiro playing a raunchy geriatric all over again. Wasn't once enough (Dirty Grandpa, 2016)? Here DeNiro plays Jackie Burke in the title role as an aging man so desperate to reclaim his youthful vigor that he denies the very thing that made him famous and acclaimed everywhere he goes.

Insight and nuance have been replaced by an old man unwilling and unable to go gently into that good night. Increasingly frantic and agitated, always looking for the next paying gig, Jackie is a man with limited time and less money. This desperation makes him needy and foolish, blaming everything but his temper and his mouth for his troubles. Comedy leads to assault leads to jail leads to romantic redemption (for only in the movies do 70-somethings manage to bed 30-somethings). The film has an occasional spark but it soon sinks into a slough. For those readers not into hydrology, a slough is a swamp or stagnant backwater that ebbs and flows slowly on a seasonal basis. This seems an apt description of both Jackie’s career and the film itself. As the Comedian himself observes, “Timing is everything.” And his is off.

All folks can remember is Jackie’s decades old schtick as Eddie in some antediluvian TV show, when what Jackie wants is to be relevant again in the exclusive enclave of stand-up insult comics. Instead, he seems destined to sell his soul over and over again to happy hours, wedding receptions, reality TV shows, nostalgic autograph events and retirement villages. Jackie would have been booked into dinner theaters too — if they were still around. Sinking into a slough is an understatement.

Prison bitch and rape jokes, lesbian wedding jokes, geriatric flatulence jokes, dick size jokes, child abuse jokes, sack of semen jokes... the laughs keep coming. Who writes this stuff? It’s probably always a bad sign when credits identify five (!) screenwriters, I suppose because of all the jokes, but such effort is more cobbling than collaboration. Thus the film comes across as jumpy and sporadic, pieces of Jackie Burke’s real life interspersed with his stand-up routines. We bounce from comedy club to comedy club, bookended by scenes in court, prison, diner, restaurant, wedding hall, homeless shelters, and finally, in a bizarre coda, an elementary school talent show that wouldn't have been out of place in The Aristocrats (2005). Aging gracefully has never been so challenging.

click to enlarge Patti LuPone and Danny DeVito as Jackie Burke's brother and sister-in-law in The Comedian -
Patti LuPone and Danny DeVito as Jackie Burke's brother and sister-in-law in The Comedian
But what an ensemble! Harvey Keitel, Edie Falco, Patti LuPone, Danny DeVito, Cloris Leachman, Charles Grodin, Brett Butler, — even Billy Crystal playing himself in a brief elevator appearance — all have their time in the frame with DeNiro. Though most associated with dramatic roles and his intense method acting, it’s not surprising that DeNiro was just recently honored with the Hollywood Comedy Award. He is a man of immense talent. Apparently everybody wants to work with DeNiro, the master craftsman showing us all how to do it. But not here, not now, not with this sour material, not with the deadly pacing and editing, not with Hackford’s lackluster directing. Not when the absolute nadir of Jackie’s career and bottomless pit of this film are the jokes about Florida retirees in an upscale Palm Beach retirement home. Geezer sex and geezer bowels have never been funnier. Did this production company get any Florida tax benefits for filming in the state? If so, taxpayers should demand their money back.

I watched much of this film through my fingers in front of my eyes, alternately grimacing, flinching and wincing, hating myself for laughing when I did. Humiliation and self-hatred sure are poor reasons to see a comedy. 

The Comedian

2.5 of 5 stars

Rated R. Directed by Taylor Hackford

Starring Robert De Niro, Leslie Mann, Danny DeVito, Edie Falco, Patti LuPone, Harvey Keitel, Charles Grodin, Cloris Leachman, Lois Smith and Happy Anderson.

Opens locally Feb. 2.

About The Author

Ben Wiley

%{[ data-embed-type="image" data-embed-id="59a99bae38ab46e8230492c5" data-embed-element="span" data-embed-size="640w" contenteditable="false" ]}%Ben Wiley is a retired professor of FILM and LITERATURE at St. Petersburg College. He also was on staff in the Study Abroad Office at University of South Florida as statewide...
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