THE COMEDIAN (Dir. Taylor Hackford, 2016)
This guy sure ain’t Rupert Pupkin! I’m talking about the comedian/talk show host wannabe that Robert De Niro played in the 1983 Martin Scorsese film KING OF COMEDY, one of my all-time favorite films.
Pupkin only dreamed of being a star, but Jackie Burke, the protagonist of Taylor Hackford’s new film THE COMEDIAN, is a veteran comic who was once the star of a hit sitcom with a catch phrase and all.
Jamie also differs from Rupert in that he’s a crude insult comic in the tradition of Don Rickles or, maybe more appropriately, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.
But this film is less like KING OF COMEDY, and more like MR. SATURDAY NIGHT, Billy Crystal’s 1992 film about an aging has been comic. Incidentally Crystal, who was De Niro’s co-star in those ANALYSE THIS/THAT movies, has a cameo as himself here.
We first meet De Niro’s Jackie as he takes the stage in a sparsely populated New York comedy club to the theme song from his famous TV show. The audience wants Jackie to do his character Eddie from that fictional program, but he doesn’t comply, and goes into his crass act that offends more people than it entertains. Things go askew when Jackie attacks a heckler who is filming the show, and gets charged with assault.
Predictably during his day in court, Jackie sabotages his lenient sentence (community service, anger management classes) with more of his trashy shtick, and gets thrown in jail.
After being released and picked up at prison by his manager (Edie Falco), Jackie meets a 40something aged woman named Harmony (Leslie Mann) at the soup kitchen where he’s doing community service. Harmony’s father, a fan of Jackie’s, is played by Harvey Keitel, whose seventh film this is with De Niro.
We follow Jackie around as he tries to make a comeback by pitching a TV show to a hipster network exec, attends his niece’s lesbian wedding, goes out to dinner with Harmony and her father, and performs at a Friar’s Club Roast, all the while spouting out gross gag after gross gag.
All of these clichéd setpieces would be more palatable if Jackie was, you know, funny, but barely any of his jokes land. I don’t know if it’s De Niro’s delivery or his timing, or if it’s that the material is weak, but I didn’t laugh once during the entire film.
It also appears that they crammed in as many cameos as possible in an attempt to distract from how unimaginative the narrative is. There’s famous comics such as Jimmy Walker, Rhett Butler, Hannibal Buress, and Gilbert Gottfried on the club sidelines, and appearances by such names as Danny Devito (as Jackie’s brother), Charles Grodin, and Cloris Leachman all popping up to spar a little with De Niro.
Perhaps the real difference between THE COMEDIAN and KING OF COMEDY is that KING OF COMEDY had a point to it – about delusion and the modern cult of celebrity.
Hackford’s film drops a lot of references to hip “now” things like YouTube, Instagram, Google News, and going viral, but the screenplay, written by Art Linson, Jeff Ross, Richard LaGravenese, and Lewis Friedman, doesn’t have any insight into what the stand-up biz of today is like for an aging curmudgeon stuck in his ways. In these overly politically correct times, this movie is missed opportunity city.
Jackie is just a caricature that schleps from one gig to another, saying unfunny inappropriate things, with no character development arc – he learns nothing, and neither do we. Jackie’s attempts to date Mann's Harmony all fail to charm as well as there’s very little chemistry between De Niro and Mann. And to cap it all off is an incredibly cringe-worthy ending right out of LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE.
De Niro, and his co-stars are wasted in this overlong (2 hours), non humorous, and vacuous vehicle that has nothing to say about its subject. It’s depressing to think that younger audiences will know De Niro more from his recent run of lame comedies than from his classic work in the ‘70s, and ‘80s. So if I can encourage at least one young person (or anybody, really) to skip this and watch KING OF COMEDY instead, maybe my time watching this forgettable, unfunny film won’t be wasted after all.