Robert De Niro fully commits to his character in The Comedian even though he’s not a terribly likable guy. De Niro is a past master of this; after all, he played Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. But The Comedian is no Raging Bull…not even close.
Jackie Burke is a standup comic who’s been reduced to the status of a nostalgia figure because of a popular sitcom he headlined years ago. This fuels a torrent of unbridled anger which comes out during his often tasteless comedy routines. A violent encounter with a heckler lands him in prison, followed by 100 hours of community service. It’s here, at a New York City church, that he meets another troubled soul played by Leslie Mann who’s also serving time for allowing her temper to get the best of her.
There isn’t much of a narrative flow to the movie, which was directed by Taylor Hackford and credited to four writers (producer Art Linson, standup comic Jeff Ross, Richard LaGravenese and Lewis Friedman). It’s a series of vignettes which occasionally show life and spark but eventually grow tiresome.
A major set piece at the Friars Club and assorted scenes at the Comedy Cellar never feel genuine, even though they were shot on location and are populated by real-life comics. (Compare this to any number of throwaway moments on Louis C.K.’s TV series where the banter and atmosphere always seemed real.)
I feel frustrated because the film does have good moments scattered here and there. What’s more, Leslie Mann gives a finely-tuned performance as the woman who comes into Jackie’s life and tries to define their relationship on her own terms. This is superior dramatic work from a woman we tend to think of as a comedienne.
The supporting cast is dotted with talented people, even in tiny parts. It’s nice to see everyone from Danny DeVito to Cloris Leachman doing good work. But I couldn’t watch De Niro and Harvey Keitel together without thinking of their groundbreaking performances in Mean Streets which tore my heart out so many years ago. Now Keitel is playing a superficial and obnoxious character whose significance to the story is negligible.
There isn’t much to take away from The Comedian except a reminder that De Niro remains the ultimate cinematic chameleon. He’s never played anyone quite like Jackie Burke before, and within minutes he makes us believe that he is that guy. It’s a gift that shouldn’t be squandered on such a mediocre movie.