By nature, insult comics are edgy and controversial. Those qualities aren’t shared by The Comedian, which lacks courage and turns soft instead of providing any meaningful insight.
Indeed, this bittersweet character study from director Taylor Hackford (Ray) features some amusing performances and hilarious snippets, but they’re overwhelmed by a grumpy-old-man bit that feels stale and obvious.
Jackie (Robert De Niro) is an erstwhile 1980s sitcom star still trying to escape the shadow of his breakthrough role. Now an aging stand-up comedian in New York, he’s struggling to reinvent himself in an age of social media and reality television. “Being funny is not enough anymore,” he’s told by his exasperated manager (Edie Falco).
His abrasive barbs from the stage mask plenty of insecurities and demons, as revealed in his volatile relationship to his deli-owner brother (Danny DeVito) and his need to take low-quality gigs just to pay the bills.
After a run-in with a heckler lands him in legal trouble, Jackie is forced to perform community service at a local soup kitchen. There, he befriends a vulnerable younger woman (Leslie Mann) whose overbearing father (Harvey Keitel) happens to be a fan of Jackie’s television character. A birthday dinner among the three doesn’t go well, but Jackie senses a spark that could help him get his personal, if not professional, life back on track.
Apparently The Comedian was a longtime passion project for De Niro — in his second go-around as a big-screen stand-up comic after The King of Comedy 35 years ago — and he shines in the title role by finding sympathy in a bitter man whose irascible tendencies block his road to redemption. The supporting cast includes cameos from a handful of famous comic veterans.
Yet despite some big laughs, the screenplay becomes overloaded with quirks and contrivances, especially among its subplots and periphery characters. Plus, the chemistry between De Niro and Mann is awkward.
The film shows a heartfelt reverence to the New York stand-up club scene, drawing parallels to its regulars who are vulgar and condescending on the outside but warm and cuddly underneath, or so we’re led to believe.
Sometimes you wish the film had committed more to its freewheeling sense of mischief that frequently comes alive during the performance scenes (including a particularly unsettling one at a lesbian wedding), but rarely elsewhere. Instead, the result feels washed up, just like its protagonist.
Rated R, 119 minutes.