Films about the world and occupants of stand-up comedy are a tricky proposition, and they need to succeed on two levels that would seem to be at cross purposes. On the one hand, you’d expect a film like director Taylor Hackford’s The Comedian to be funny. It’s about funny people who make a living being funny. And in the case of the lead character of Jackie Burke (Robert De Niro), he made a nice bit of scratch thanks to a successful 1970s sitcom “Eddie’s Home,” which seems to be an “All in the Family” ripoff, with Jackie playing a politically incorrect patriarch. On the other hand, you want films about comedians to be authentic, which is not always funny since every day seems like a struggle to stay relevant and employed—an especially tough combo when you’re 25-30 years beyond what is considered your peak. Jackie still gets recognized all over his native New York City, but when people call out his name, they usually say “Hey, Eddie!”
If The Comedian had stuck strictly to the story of a nearly washed-up comic attempting to work the circuit of nostalgia acts, seedy bars, retirement homes, and hosting internet game shows, that might have been quite movie. But Hackford and his army of screenwriters (including Art Linson, roastmaster Jeffrey Ross, Richard LaGravenese and Lewis Friedman) also want us to laugh occasionally, which is a noble desire, but it sometimes undercuts the dramatic struggle elements of the story. To make matters worse, they insert an unnecessary and distracting love story involving a woman named Harmony Schiltz (Leslie Mann), who Jackie meets at a soup kitchen both are working at as part of their community services requirements (Jackie punched a heckling audience member and got jail time).
But before the romance kicks in, the film starts strong. Hackford surrounds De Niro, who is quite convincing as a foul-mouthed shock comic, with actual comedians, some of whom are meant to make his situation look just a little bit more pathetic. There’s a gig made up of comic of old sitcoms, including Jimmie Walker and Brett Butler. But there are also trips to the legendary Comedy Cellar, where we see real-life manager Estee Adoram at a table with regulars like Hannibal Buress, Jim Norton, Nick Di Paolo, and others. We see a few lesser-known comics on stage absolutely kill, and we begin to appreciate just how much fine tuning needs to go into the acts that play this hallowed hall. (Fans of Louis CK’s show “Louie” should be very familiar with the venue.)
The first half of the film is virtually storyless, which is a good thing. It’s more an examination into Jackie’s day-to-day living, talking to his manager (Edie Falco), who is actually the daughter of his original manager and whom Jackie doesn’t think is pulling hard enough for him. We see Jackie visit his brother Ben (Danny DeVito), a deli owner whose wife Flo (Patti LuPone) hates Jackie but whose daughter worships him and asks him to give a toast at her wedding, which causes friction among all in attendance. The film reveals that sometimes what makes a comic hot in the moment is a complete accident, like a viral YouTube video or something like the punching incident. It’s a total crapshoot, and one Jackie has little control over. He just does what he does, and the rest of the world either keeps up or they don’t care. A meeting with an up-and-coming network to develop a new sitcom idea goes well until Jackie decides the hipsters in charge are smug little bastards.
When the love story kicks in, the film loses its charm as a slice-of-life character study and degrades into a subpar romantic-comedy. Things only get worse when she drags Jackie to meet her Florida real estate dealer/mobster Mac (Harvey Keitel), who is the world’s biggest fan of “Eddie’s Home.” Naturally, the meeting is a disaster, despite the fact that audiences should be loving the De Niro-Keitel reunion. For reasons I’m not quite clear on, Hackford brings in other former De Niro co-stars—Billy Crystal and Charles Grodin—for cameos in separate scenes that simply come up empty.
A third-act development involving the relationship with Mann and an unexpectedly high-profile performance at an old-age home seem forced and phony, and the film’s few good qualities evaporate as suddenly as they appeared. De Niro gets points for seeming surprisingly at home in the stand-up environment and mixed it up nicely with the real comics that surround him. It becomes almost more frustrating that the film starts so well, then slowly sinks into easy jokes and clichéd gimmicks as it sputters toward its cutesy conclusion. The Comedian has the earmarks of something really strong, but like most things today, it plays it safe and he end results are astonishingly mediocre.