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.


Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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May 2024