Run time: 1 hour 59 minutes
Stars: Robert De Niro, Danny DeVito, Leslie Mann
Director: Taylor Hackford
Despite a first-rate cast and solid direction, Robert De Niro’s finely focused portrayal of struggling stand-up comic Jackie Burke has one fatal flaw: Jackie’s just not very funny.
It should have worked because De Niro has always had superb comic timing, and here he’s surrounded by similarly gifted — and usually funny — costars: Leslie Mann, Danny DeVito, Cloris Leachman, Charles Grodin and Harvey Keitel. What’s more, every time Jackie turns a corner he manages to run into another comedy legend, from Brett Butler and Jimmie Walker to Gilbert Gottfried and Billy Crystal.
Director Taylor Hackford (Ray) ably guides them all through a universe of grungy nightclubs, cluttered soup kitchens and, in the final act, a rather lifeless Miami retirement home. But laughs? I laughed more at Manchester by the Sea, and that was the year’s saddest film.
The hard fact is, you make a movie about a stand-up comedian at your own peril. If the film clicks, as Man on the Moon did when Jim Carrey channeled Andy Kaufman, the laughter of the audience shown on screen rolls into that of the warm bodies assembled in the theater, and a magical kind of “cinergy” is achieved. But when that click doesn’t occur — when the scripted jokes of a comedian caught on camera fall flat with a live theater audience — the onscreen guffaws become not just perplexing but mortifying. And that’s the unfortunate case here: While the big-screen crowd is losing it, we’re just lost.
We first see Jackie working his craft at what looks like a VFW hall on a Tuesday night. Just two or three forgettable jokes into his act, he spots a guy illegally recording the show, leaps off the stage and pummels him.
Why is Jackie so angry? Mostly, it seems, he’s bitter about the professional straitjacket he’s been in since starring in a schlocky 1980s sitcom. Three decades on, no one wants to hear his mean-spirited insult jokes — instead they want him to stand onstage and declaim the stupid catchphrases that made him famous.
Alison Cohen Rosa/Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics
The comedy-club beatdown lands Jackie in community service, working at a soup kitchen alongside a woman named Harmony (Leslie Mann), who’s atoning for an attack on her sleazy ex-husband. They hit it off — a broken jar of olives is the meet-cute device — and before long they’re an odd romantic item.
As Jackie drags Harmony from one low-rent comedy gig to the next, it’s a comfort to witness the easy, bantering chemistry between De Niro and Mann. But again the script (by a team of four writers) lets them down. Their dialogue is supposed to be funny, but remember that old line about how a true comic can get laughs reading the phone book out loud? It’s not true. And while a telephone-directory script would not be an improvement for The Comedian, neither would it subject us to a cringeworthy retirement-home scene where Jackie slays ’em with a rendition of “Makin’ Whoopie,” cleverly substituting “poopie” for “whoopie.” Yes, it’s every bit as bad as you imagine — yet the script expects us to believe that a viral YouTube video of the shtick resurrects Jackie’s career.
Director Hackford transcends the script here and there, crafting the beginnings of interesting relationships for Jackie with, for example, his adoring brother (DeVito) and his long-suffering manager (Edie Falco). In these scenes, Jackie isn’t trying to be funny; he’s trying to relate to other human beings. But these moments end too soon and Jackie returns to the spotlight, killing us softly with his slurs.
When you have to go the Foghorn Leghorn route — “That’s a joke, son!” — the joke is actually on you. And that’s not funny, either.
Bill Newcott is a writer, editor and movie critic for AARP Media.