Comedy is subjective. So it makes sense that a movie about a stand-up comic will pass muster or not depending on how funny you think the jokes are. On that scale, The Comedian is more successful than not; there are enough laugh-out-loud jokes to keep it going, but they’re interspersed with a lot of material that’s questionable. Not necessarily in questionable taste (forget about taste, this is a movie about comedy), but in terms of jokes that don’t quite hit the mark, and lie there, whimpering.
Fortunately, director Taylor Hackford keeps the pacing steady enough so as not to stumble too much over the misfires. And he coaxes a terrific performance out of star Robert De Niro. Sure, De Niro has starred in plenty of comedies, but stand-up requires a different kind of chutzpah—the presence to command an audience, and the quick wit to get them to trust where you’re taking them. De Niro gets this; his character Jackie Burke is so relaxed onstage, he looks like he’s been doing stand-up his whole life, and De Niro’s delivery and timing couldn’t be better.
The movie was written by a clutch of showbiz insiders: veteran producer Art Linson, comic and roastmaster Jeffrey Ross, Richard LaGravenese, and Lewis Friedman, from a story idea by Linson. And Hackford wisely chooses an atmospheric soundtrack of moody, mellow nightclub jazz. Factor in a boatload of real-life stand-up comics and other celebs in cameos, and it all adds up to—well, not a love letter, exactly, but a wistful salute to the business of show business.
Jackie is a veteran “insult comedian” who had a hit TV sitcom 30 years ago that the public never lets him forget. Now he plays whatever podunk gigs his agent Miller (Edie Falco) can line up. Punching out a burly, bearded heckler at one such gig lands Jackie a community service stint at a homeless shelter. There he meets Harmony (a very effective Leslie Mann), another volunteer with her own anger issues. They bond over shared stories of their assault charges.
Over a few days, Jackie introduces Harmony to the New York comedy club scene, and they provide back-up for each other at family events: the wedding of Jackie’s niece to her girlfriend (Danny DeVito and Patti LuPone score as parents of the bride), and a sketchy birthday dinner with Harmony’s domineering mobster dad (Harvey Keitel).
Real- and reel-life showbiz connections help fuel the dynamic between De Niro and Keitel (40-plus years after Mean Streets), and between Jackie and Billy Crystal (as himself, in a cameo), another former De Niro costar. Cloris Leachman has a choice cameo as an elder stateswoman of the comedy scene enduring a Friars Club roast. And a pointed subtext charts the evolution of comedy from stand-up to scripted sitcoms to the bloodsucking humiliation of reality television, to the power of Youtube to make or jump-start careers. All is poised for an insightful meditation on comedy vs. life. If only there were more laughs.
It’s not that some of the material is “blue” (as one character quaintly puts it). One of the best movies about comedy is the documentary The Aristocrats, in which dozens of comics tell their versions of the most notoriously dirty joke in the business. The punch line is always the same, but the set-up challenges each individual comic to plumb personal depths of scatological depravity, with results that are completely unprintable and hysterically funny.
But when material bombs in The Comedian, it’s generally due to weak comedy writing. Jackie’s routines tend to go on way past their expiration dates. His impromptu appearance at a retirement home in Florida starts out great, with acknowledgement that the seniors in the crowd had lives and careers of their own, before it devolves into an (endless) sing-along about making poop.
The movie’s comic highlight, however, is stand-up pro Jessica Kirson, who trades quips with Jackie from the stage. What we see of her routine is so sharp and funny, it’s pretty clear that she lives the life this movie wants to pay homage to.
**1/2 (out of four)
With Robert De Niro, Leslie Mann, Danny De Vito and Harvey Keitel. Written by Art Linson, Jeffrey Ross, Richard LaGravenese, and Lewis Friedman. Directed by Taylor Hackford. A Sony Classics release. Rated R. 119 minutes.