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The Comedian Movie Review

The Comedian (2016) movie poster The Comedian

Theatrical Release: December 2, 2016 / Running Time: 119 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Taylor Hackford / Writers: Art Linson (story & screenplay); Jeff Ross, Richard Lagravenese, Lewis Friedman (screenplay)

Cast: Robert De Niro (Jackie Burke/Jacob Berkowitz/Eddie), Leslie Mann (Harmony Schiltz), Danny DeVito (Jimmy Berkowitz), Edie Falco (Miller), Veronica Ferres (Karola), Charles Grodin (Dick D'Angelo), Cloris Leachman (May Conner), Patti LuPone (Florence Berkowitz), Lois Smith (Miriam), Harvey Keitel (Mac Shiltz), Lucy DeVito (Brittany Berkowitz), Jimmie Walker (Himself), Brett Butler (Herself), Richard Belzer (Himself), Jim Norton (Himself), Hannibal Buress (Himself), Nick DiPaolo (Himself), Billy Crystal (Himself), Gilbert Gottfried (Himself)

 

No one can deny Robert De Niro's place among acting legends. At the same time, no one can deny that for a long time now De Niro's career has lacked the luster it once held. Sure, there have been agreeable turns in three David O. Russell movies.
And The Internship was probably the closest he came to a Golden Globe nomination in ages. But somehow it doesn't seem like Last Vegas, Dirty Grandpa, and Little Fockers are going to inspire the same awe and admiration in four decades that movies like Taxi Driver, The Godfather Part II, and Raging Bull presently do.

Obviously, De Niro needs a comeback vehicle. That is exactly what The Comedian seems designed to be. The title and premise recall De Niro's work in The King of Comedy, Martin Scorsese's 1983 satire that has come to reach masterpiece status after a mix of initial reactions. There is an accomplished director at the helm in Taylor Hackford (Ray). And though this is his first one-hander in quite a while, De Niro has an appealing supporting cast assembled around him, giving us a chance to see him share the big screen with Harvey Keitel yet again and to reunite with Charles Grodin for the first time since the classic 1988 buddy comedy Midnight Run.

De Niro plays Jackie Burke (real name: Jacob Berkowitz), a goateed 67-year-old forever best known for his work on the 1970s sitcom "Eddie's Home." Glimpses of the show invite comparisons to "All in the Family", with Eddie being a cop with a wife, a kid, and a catchphrase. Nowadays, New York-based Jackie has to slum it in low-paying nostalgia gigs where he follows such fellow small screen has-beens as Brett Butler ("Grace Under Fire") and Jimmie Walker ("Good Times"). This is the best that Jackie's manager (Edie Falco) can get him and not for lack of trying.

"The Comedian" stars Robert De Niro as aging former TV star and still- comic Jackie Burke.

The aforementioned gig finds Jackie being disrupted by hecklers with a camera and a web series. A microphone hit to the face and lack of remorse in court earns Jackie thirty days in jail plus 100 hours of community service. The homeless shelter where Jackie puts in time allows him to cross paths with Harmony Schiltz (Leslie Mann), whom we quickly identify as a significantly younger love interest. Harmony has 250 hours of community service to complete over an incident with an unfaithful partner, but that's not really important. She also has a father (Keitel) who is a huge fan of "Eddie's Home" and makes an ass out of himself at the meeting with the star that Harmony arranges as a birthday present.

Jackie's career proceeds with ups and downs. A few videos of him go viral, but a blue Friars Club roast of a 95-year-old legend (Cloris Leachman) never gets broadcast. Meanwhile, Harmony moves to Florida and stops answering Jackie's calls and texts.

Back in the 1980s, De Niro doing comedy was a revelation. Since 2000's Meet the Parents became the biggest hit of his career and its 2004 sequel nearly doubled its blockbuster numbers, De Niro has gravitated towards comedy as often as anything else. It is no surprise that he can deliver a joke, including some ribald material here. Unfortunately, whether on stage, meeting fans, or performing for the elderly residents of a senior community, Burke's material never entertains the viewer nearly as much as it delights those in his midst.

Despite what it looks like, Mac Schiltz (Harvey Keitel) isn't all that happy to see Jackie Burke (Robert De Niro) down in Florida.

Who do we blame for that? Art Linson, whom De Niro basically played in the 2008 adaptation of Linson's memoir What Just Happened, is credited with the story of The Comedian. He is also one of four attributed with the screenplay, sharing credit with seasoned scribe Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King, The Mirror Has Two Faces), stand-up comic and roast dais staple Jeff Ross, and event comedy writer Lewis Friedman (who has been scarce in film since his 1998 debut BASEketball).
All four of these guys have been around long enough to know what's funny and yet you'd never know it here. It is not just the stand-up act bits that fail to produce smiles or chuckles, but also what the movie offers in the way of romantic comedy banter, character clashes, and depictions of life issues and conflict.

Like every independent comedy, The Comedian tries to ground itself in human drama. But the movie strikes out on this front, never getting us to invest in Jackie and Harmony as a couple, even as it takes them on adventures like the lavish lesbian wedding of Jackie's niece. It doesn't help that the ordinarily great Mann is an unconvincing leading lady here, perhaps realizing she already made a better version of this movie called Funny People. The moral stands the film takes, with Jackie storming off hosting a "Fear Factor"-like reality show, feel about 15 years untimely as well.

De Niro has earned so much good will with his good work that I've usually been willing to forgive him for the bad, because it's rarely as bad as detractors claim and he is still completely capable of moving us (see Silver Linings Playbook). But it's tough not to cringe repeatedly here and wish he had the same high standards that made his filmography so sterling for about thirty years. No actor would be able to make The Comedian go down smoothly and De Niro makes it far more tolerable than a lesser talent would. But the quest for a comeback vehicle continues and though De Niro looks great at 73, you hope he'll find it soon (perhaps his long-rumored reunion with Scorsese on the supposedly 2018-scheduled The Irishman).

After a brief, fruitless awards-qualifying run in December, The Comedian opens in major markets today via a mid-sized Sony Pictures Classics release.

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Leslie Mann: Funny People Knocked Up | Harvey Keitel: The Men's Club Sister Act
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Reviewed February 3, 2017.



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