When Robert De Niro appeared as the title character in the dopey gross-out comedy "Dirty Grandpa" early last year, I'd assumed it was a fluke -- after all, even living legends need an easy paycheck once in a while. But with his latest role as an aging insult comic in Taylor Hackford's foul-mouthed, shaggy dog comedy, "The Comedian," it seems distinctly possible that raunchy humor might actually be a secret passion for the actor. Around the time he's earnestly performing a song about constipation to a delighted audience of nursing home residents, it's hard to imagine any other reason the esteemed actor might subject himself to such humiliations.
Indeed, the script for "The Comedian" has reportedly been kicking around Hollywood for some time with De Niro attached. It's a project the actor has been trying to get made for years, and the movie frequently feels that way: its idea of cutting-edge comedy comes across as hopelessly dated.
De Niro stars as Jackie Burke, a long-past-his-prime standup comic who achieved fame decades earlier as the star of a family sitcom called "Eddie's Home." He seems to have spent the years since desperately attempting to recapture just a fraction of that success. Played with a permanent scowl, Jackie doesn't really seem to enjoy his chosen profession, and he definitely doesn't enjoy the attention of the TV show's many fans, who demand that he repeat his character's popular catchphrase ("Ar-LEEENE!").
Jackie's been getting by on whatever appearances his put-upon manager (Edie Falco) can wrangle up for him, and it's at one of these dead-end gigs that Jackie ends up assaulting a particularly obnoxious heckler. The video goes viral, but the incident lands him in court and he's sentenced to community service at a local soup kitchen. There he ends up meeting Harmony (Leslie Mann), another court-ordered volunteer also facing a low point in her life. The two strike up a friendship, which gradually blossoms into an unlikely attraction.
The film shambles along, following a loose narrative as Jackie and Harmony continue to spend time together, occasionally running afoul of his brother (Danny DeVito) and hostile sister-in-law (Patti LuPone) as well as Harmony's controlling and somewhat sleazy father (Harvey Keitel).
Focusing on a protagonist who's clawing his way up from career oblivion, guided only by a self-destructive longing for the spotlight, "The Comedian" is a little bit "BoJack Horseman," a little bit Darren Aronofsky's "The Wrestler." But it lacks the bite of either, or for that matter of De Niro's previous foray into the world of standup in Martin Scorsese's dark 1983 satire "The King of Comedy." "The Comedian" instead lurches awkwardly between leaden humor and cheap sentimentality -- we see a number of Jackie's performances, but they're full of toothless, crude humor that we're ostensibly supposed to take as edgy.
De Niro never appears all that comfortable on stage delivering Jackie's routines. With his half-hearted delivery, it's difficult to tell whether we're supposed to believe Jackie has talent and even deserves a comeback at all. The actor has often proven himself to have a knack for humor, though he's rarely found a comedic script that matches his skill. On the other hand, Mann is effortlessly likeable. Throughout her career, Mann has been able to conjure up chemistry with every one of her costars, so it's not surprising that she and De Niro have an easy rapport together.
Terence Blanchard's jazzy score gives the film a bit of pep, but Hackford doesn't do much else to liven up the material. He does, however, cram the film with cameos by veteran stand-up comics, from Brett Butler to Hannibal Buress and Billy Crystal. Charles Grodin, Cloris Leachman, and Lois Smith also show up in small roles -- there's certainly no shortage of talent in the film, but none of them really get much to do.
"The Comedian" is one of those movies where we repeatedly watch crowds of extras roar with laughter at Jackie's routines, and characters breathlessly rave about how hilarious he is, but the result just gives the audience a sense that we're never in on the joke.
Check back on Friday for additional film coverage, including a review of Jim Jarmusch's "Paterson," and "Things to Come," which stars current Oscar-nominee Isabelle Huppert.