Jack Berkowitz (De Niro) is a second rate George Carlin-type comedian Jackie Burke. After decades in the business, he’s relegated to being known by his sitcom alter-ego Eddie and to doing “Legends” nights at lounges on Long Island. One night, Burke is at one of these gigs gets into a scuffle with a heckler filming his set, resulting in a stay in jail after freaking out in court. And from there, The Comedian goes off onto multiple tangents including a romantic angle involving a woman 25+ years his junior, a mano-a-mano with her connected father, a family dramedy with his brother and so on.
Director Taylor Hackford has had quite the diverse career. From his best work 35 years ago, with An Officer and a Gentleman, he’s done a musical documentary (Hail! Hail! Rock & Roll), a sports drama (Everybody’s All-American), a Stephen King adaptation (Dolores Claiborne), a campy legal drama (The Devil’s Advocate) and an Oscar-winning musical biopic (Ray). Here, Hackford tries his hand at a raunchy but mature comedy inside the world of stand-up comedy. The Oscar-nominee is able to hold the movie together for as long as the script doesn’t hold him back.
Hackford knows De Niro is the movie’s best asset and allows him to shine. De Niro is a master at his craft who has been accused of phoning it in for the past several years but when he’s on stage riffing and telling filthy jokes, you can’t say that. He looks and sounds so natural up there. You’d think he actually was the comedy legend all the young, real-life comedians revere him in the Comedy Cellar. Burke also has a fun love-hate relationship with his agent, played by the reliable Edie Falco.
As I mentioned before, there are three additional plots that have little-to-nothing to do with a career in comedy. The only one even remotely works is Jack’s relationship with his brother Jimmy (Danny DeVito). The two Hollywood legends have the kind of chemistry and relationship that two old brothers would have. But not all the material in this section is up to snuff. The bulk of the conflict here is caused by the stereotypical loud, annoyed and annoying middle-aged Jewish wife who hates Jackie with every fiber of her being.
If The Comedian were just little bits and pieces of an aging comic as he rides one last wave into retirement, it might be worth recommending. Alas, the Art Linson/Jeff Ross draft that possibly focused more on the comedy aspects was re-written at least twice by the accomplished Richard La Gravenese (The Fisher King) and Lewis Friedman (BASEketball) to focus on the most prominent and worse storyline. Burke gets involved with Harmony Schultz (Leslie Mann), a fellow loser-in-love sentenced to community service. Harmony is under the thumb of her wealthy father (Harvey Keitel), who disapproves of the two seeing each other despite being a fan of Jackie’s sitcom. All of this material is old and tired, deadly dull and you know exactly where it’s going from the moment they meet. The worst part is that the romantic angle takes over most of the last 45 minutes, grinding the already average proceedings to a hault.
The Comedian also has a weird inconsistency in the casting. There are over a dozen veteran comedians who make multiple, minute-long cameos. Those make total sense as it’s a movie about the life of a comedian. Later on, there is a sequence that takes place at The Friar’s Club for one of their famous roasts. In the elevator, Burke runs into Billy Crystal as Billy Crystal in a cringe-worthy cameo. In the very next scene, he meets with the head of Club, played by Charles Grodin but not actually Charles Grodin, who explains that he will be on the dais for the Roast of May Connor, played by Cloris Leachman but not Cloris Leachman. It is at this point that the movie lost me. So the comedians, no matter how famous or obscure, get to be themselves but the second most famous member of the cast has to play a fictional shell of herself and not a meta or actual version of the legendary Cloris Leachman. I know it sounds like a nitpick but the skills of two actors at the center of this are way above this material.
To be honest, everyone on screen is above the whole of this movie. The Comedian succeeds on a micro level but not enough to recommend the bigger picture, which is, especially in the second hour, a clichéd mess.
2 out of 5