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Film Review: THE COMEDIAN Features a Washed Up Robert De Niro

Film Review: THE COMEDIAN Features a Washed Up Robert De Niro

Robert De Niro plays a has-been, apparently bitter and always irreverent standup in his latest film, The Comedian. The movie, which, much like its central character exists on a bizarre plane between sadness and hilarity, is a series of joke routines spliced together to increase the runtime. And while there are genuine laugh out loud moments as Jackie, De Niro’s character, skewers all within his path, something is emotionally missing from the center of the pastiche.

When we first meet him, Jackie is performing at a C-list establishment for pennies, his frustrated agent trying to land him a gig and keep him out of hot water. When a raucous audience member provokes Jackie into a fist fight to publish it on YouTube, the comic finds himself serving thirty days in the slammer. After he gets out, he is ordered to do community service, where he meets Harmony, played by Leslie Mann, who is slightly unstable but also strangely attracted to Jackie out of some twisted father issue.

You have to admit that there is something inherently brilliant in making a film about a washed up, typecast comedian, and then casting it with Harvey Keitel (Harmony’s overbearing father), Danny DeVito (Jackie’s brother), Patty Lupone (Jackie’s sister-in-law), and Cloris Leachman (a famous star on death’s door), not to mention Edie Falco, Jackie’s agent. There is clearly some clever introspection suffusing the entire project, which regularly features Jackie doing stand-up gigs at weddings and events in which he lays on shocking and even cruel (but always, inevitably, funny) jokes on a whole host of groups, but mostly on Jewish folk, gays, and the elderly. The very people, of course, it is safe to insult, given the carefully-selected cast at director Taylor Hackford’s (Ray) disposal.

But the writers would have been wise to take a page from the basic book of the comedians they were spoofing. A gag that takes too long to introduce—as The Comedian does with its needlessly long buildup before Jackie meets Harmony—eventually tires the audience. So too does one that goes on forever—as The Comedian does with what seems like three or four endings, only to give way to another skit. Even if you can get past the crudeness of the quips (and not all viewers will be able to do so), you will catch yourself impatiently tapping your foot about why you should care.

No doubt, watching the horrified faces of Jackie’s aghast audiences as he does his thing is highly amusing. The group of actors joined for this project may be old news, but their talents have not faded, and they are on fine display here. Leslie Mann is a tad grating, with her by now familiar high-pitch whine meant to convey some sense of weakness with innocence. But De Niro is talented as a jokester, even though he is also certainly playing a mix of some of his older tantrum-throwing characters.

But The Comedian’s best asset is the few glimpses of sincerity that we are permitted into the central character’s soul. We discover that the brash exterior is a combination of defense mechanism and stubbornness, and that there is perhaps something else there. The problem is that this is never explored in depth or compellingly, quickly cast aside for another joke about poop and old people diapers.

The Comedian weaves itself into the fabric of modern society—it is very well aware and exploits the power of YouTube hits and reality TV, which provides one of the most hilarious gags of the entire reel. But it is ultimately still a paean to standup comic routines of old, and to the stars of old, and as such is constantly engaged in an unwinnable war with itself—and that is no laughing matter.

Grade: C

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About The Author

J. Don Birnam

J. Don Birnam, a voting member of the New York Film Critics Online, has been a movie lover since he saw the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film in theaters at a tender age, and has been a devoted student of American film history every since. His favorite films range from Back to the Future to West Side Story, depending on the time of day, and has a mildly unhealthy obsessions with the Academy Awards. Any similarity with the slightly unstable writer in the seminal 1944 film 'The Lost Weekend' is pure coincidence

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