Given its title and cast of comedic powerhouses, you’d think that The Comedian would at the very least be funny – right? In a strange turn of fate, it’s actually the drama in this film that succeeds while the raunchy comedy fails to hit the mark. Half the jokes that do elicit a chuckle also leave you feeling a tad bit guilty since it’s mostly insult humor in the vein of Comedy Central roasts. Not surprisingly, veteran roaster Jeffrey Ross helped with the scripting. It’s just too bad that the material in here isn’t as good as what he normally brings to the microphone.
Aging New York City comedian and former sitcom star Jackie Burke (Robert De Niro) wants nothing more than to re-invent himself as a stand-up comic. But the only people interested in seeing him perform don’t want Jackie Burke. They want to see Eddie, the family friendly role he played in the beloved and long off the air Eddie’s Home. The frustrated comic reaches a low point when an incident with a heckler gets him thirty days in jail and community service at his local mission. It’s there that he meets Harmony (Leslie Mann), a younger woman with a potty mouth and anger issues of her own stemming from her wealthy and controlling father Mac (Harvey Keitel).
Ancillary characters like Mac or Jackie’s brother and his wife Flo (Danny DeVito and Patti LuPone) give this film some much needed emotional depth while other actors appear as glorified room furniture. The film calls some of its cast by their name in an attempt to create a sense of realism, but it ultimately feels unnecessary when the actors in question are barely used. Billy Crystal’s one scene comes off as fan service and the extremely funny Hannibal Buress is relegated to sitting in a booth at the Comedy Cellar for about ten seconds of dialogue.
The main issue with De Niro’s Jackie Burke doesn’t lie in the performance but rather in the actual jokes. His material isn’t funny as much as it is angry and ill-tempered. So is his mood throughout most of the film and it can be extremely taxing on an audience spending time with a character that’s so hard to be around, let alone for two hours. Jackie’s friendship turned relationship with Harmony is also uneven. Despite game performances from the pair, the chemistry is absent as their scenes fluctuate from sweet to awkward and sometimes creepy.
Thankfully, around the failed comedy bits are some really fascinating themes being explored albeit not touched on enough. Most prominently, the film is a commentary on celebrity and the difficulty of shedding an image that’s ingrained in the public eye. It’s not hard to see why Jackie is so frustrated when it seems the only gigs he can book are convention appearances or old-timer comedy events.
Some of the most effortlessly engrossing scenes are between Jackie and his tirelessly committed agent Miller (Edie Falco). It’s a task and a half for her to navigate around her client’s unwillingness to adjust to an industry that is far changed from when he entered it. She’s the daughter of his former agent and as stubborn and ungrateful as he is to her you know with absolute certainty that she hasn’t left his corner because he’s family.
Another theme explored is the pain that a person’s absence inflicts on their family. Being so self-centered and concerned with his career, Jackie rarely visits his brother anymore. In one of the best scenes in the film, he shows up to his niece’s wedding much to his brother’s and sister in-law’s surprise. He delivers a signature profane and insult-laden speech that mortifies Flo but his brother isn’t really all that upset because he’s just so happy to have Jackie there.
Harmony has the opposite dynamic with her father. Mac is overprotective and pressures his daughter non-stop to come live with him in Florida. But even though their conversations are short and filled with shouting, Harmony never marches off without at least a kiss on her father’s cheek.
Unfortunately, the flaws in Taylor Hackford’s The Comedian can’t be ignored. It’s way too long and ends up feeling like a chore to get through. Furthermore, the raunchy shock-value humor leaves your memory as soon as it enters, actors go grossly under-utilized and the title character fails to live up to his name. Quite frankly, he’s just a bummer to be around.
The Comedian isn't funny enough to justify its two hour runtime, but it does offer a decent exploration of the aging celebrity.