One of Robert De Niro’s most iconic roles is Rupert Pupkin in Martin Scorsese’s classic dark comedy, “The King of Comedy.” So iconic that it spawned a magnificent blog to be named after him! De Niro was the perfect fit for the character, capturing the awkward stiltedness of the wannabe comedian with seemingly relative ease. The actor’s adeptness for detached individuals helped in crafting an unusually funny and sharply insightful expose on social ineptitude and the dangers of the cult of personality.
Robert De Niro doesn’t have as much success in portraying Jackie Burke, the titular comedian of director Taylor Hackford’s comedic drama. The reason being is that, despite the actor’s best efforts, he isn’t as adept at playing a smooth, confident comedian as he was a socially awkward one. Sure, he commands the room when on stage, but every act of his comes across as rehearsed, not spontaneous. This becomes painfully obvious when a slew of comedians (such as Hannibal Burress & Jim Norton) give condensed versions of their acts in ostentatious cameos. At least they serve more of a purpose than Billy Crystal, who sheepishly appears randomly to give the film credence. (And possibly recreate the magic he and De Niro had in “Analyze This,” which doesn’t come to fruition.)
It’s not that “The Comedian” is ignorant of the stand-up lifestyle. Stand-up comedian and Roastmaster Jeffrey Ross helped pen the script (alongside seasoned screenwriters Art Linson, Lewis Friedman, & Richard LaGravenese), imbuing the production with a sense of honesty. What’s missing is an aura of raw emotion, fitting considering Jackie Burke questions a budding shock TV station on if their definition of raw is “half-baked” or “strong.” Unfortunately for this film, the definition is of the former.
The film’s commentary on humor and today’s culture is rather hollow, especially in comparison to recent hits such as Mike Birbiglia’s wonderful “Don’t Think Twice” and Louis C.K.’s phenomenal show, “Louie.” I actually thought of the latter quite a bit during the film, as scenes in which Burke deals with disruptive hecklers is heavily reminiscent of Louie’s agenda, just without the wry observations. It is more akin to a Don Rickles routine, just not as funny.
To Hackford’s credit, he does capture the hollowness of both the stand-up lifestyle and modern culture well. The stand-up routines are obvious, with the sitcom humor being even more so. He cleverly has people bombarding Burke with references to his hit show, “Eddie’s Home,” capturing the monotony of fame without being too overt about it. With that being said, the commentary never gets out of second gear, resulting in these ingenious techniques to fall flat. It becomes as hollow as the system it lampoons and not in an engaging way.
Still, “The Comedian” would’ve been able to float had its focus been secure on that of the struggling comedian’s woes. Instead, the seasoned screenwriters abandoned Jeff Ross’ comedic intuition in favor of a lackadaisical romance between Burke and Harmony Schlitz (Leslie Mann). I thought at first that Hackford and the screenwriters would be wise enough to subvert expectations, having the budding friendship between the two be just that: a friendship. This would’ve went a long way in breathing humanity into the insult comic without having to succumb to the tired rom-com formula. It also would’ve addressed the crippling stereotype of romance found in pictures such as this rather poignantly. Instead, Burke and the story befall to the whims of an undercooked formula, undermining the progress of not only those two aspects, but that of Harmony’s character as well.
Harmony, much like Burke, is presented as a broken soul drifting through life. The two meet volunteering at a homeless shelter in New York, both working off their court-mandated community service. She has trust issues stemming from her mother abandoning her at a young age and her father, Mac (Harvey Keitel), being an emotionally unavailable businessman. Her outbursts of rage coupled with humble sincerity matches that of Jackie’s, so it’s not a surprise to see why the filmmakers struggled in not making them an item. However, it comes across as too forced, especially with the introduction of certain circumstances that wind up bogging down the production. The two’s chemistry early on is all but eviscerated by the implications of romance, which is ignorant to the fact that the two are better suited for the father/daughter bond. It’s so blatant that I’m almost appalled that they didn’t pick up on it and run with it. For a film that plays to conventions just as much as it criticizes them, I’m disappointed they didn’t follow through on the best and most obvious one.
Hackford also stumbles in following through on certain subplots. To his defense, he’s only allotted so much time to develop them. And, in the interest of fairness, they at least bubble with vigor. Edie Falco is exceptional as Miller, Burke’s patient manager. Her deadpan approach to dealing with comedians provides the perfect foil for Jackie, as well as extracting a few, much-needed laughs. Danny DeVito & Patti LuPone are also great foils as the insult comic’s brother and sister-in-law, with tensions mounting at their daughter’s wedding (played by Danny’s real-life daughter, Lucy DeVito). Charles Grodin is a welcome inclusion as Dick D’Angelo, Jackie’s foe who constantly steals his material, as is Cloris Leachman as legendary actress May Conner. Their inclusion admittedly feels shoehorned in, just as Billy Crystal’s was, but at least serve a bit more substance. That and any time Charles Grodin is allowed on screen is a good thing. Well, except for “Clifford.”
“The Comedian” follows its formula too closely, albeit with Hackford choreographing it smoothly. It’s an easily digestible movie, but one that leaves a lot to be desired. It lacks the punch of a dark comedy, the heart of an uplifting drama, and the spark of a romance. Its commentary is on the money, but is executed poorly. While De Niro may not be perfectly suited for the titular role, his passion for the project seeps through. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve grown tired of watching him slum it in recent years, but I’m slightly forgiving of the film’s shortcomings in favor of seeing a driven De Niro performance. I can only forgive so much, though.
Final Rating: C+