Comedy is equal parts material and delivery. The funniest quip will flop if told with bad timing, and a sharp style can’t carry leaden content. Unfortunately, both afflictions affect The Comedian, a character study that never digs below its protagonist's loathsome surface and a comedy in which the jokes fall flat.
Robert De Niro plays Jackie Burke, a former sitcom star and comedy icon spending the twilight of his life slogging through the grimy stand-up circuit. He abhors his fading TV stardom, but his bitter temperament self-sabotages any effort to jump-start his career. After Jackie assaults a heckler, he’s sentenced to perform community service at a Manhattan homeless shelter. There he meets another court-ordered volunteer named Harmony (Leslie Mann), and the two strike up an ill-fitting May-December relationship. Perhaps Harmony is partly starstruck, but everything Jackie says and does would drive any self-respecting person to seek a restraining order.
This wisp of a plot connects a string of vignettes that feature Jackie performing his noxious routine in various settings: a dive bar, a jail, the shelter, his lesbian niece’s wedding reception, the New York Friars Club, and a Florida retirement home. Jeff Ross, the insult comic famous for hosting Comedy Central’s roasts, wrote Jackie’s stand-up material for the film. While there’s a grand tradition of blue comedy, Ross’s crass, mean-spirited gags sound even sadder when routed through De Niro’s wooden delivery, which still sounds like Rupert Pupkin in his mom’s basement. De Niro’s performance as Pupkin in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy was meant to be a deranged comedic parody. But The Comedian makes it appear that De Niro doesn’t have another gear.
Director Taylor Hackford fashions the film like The Wrestler combined with a long, dull episode of Louie. Hackford also gets his jollies shoehorning nostalgia into half-written supporting characters. Harvey Keitel, De Niro’s Mean Streets costar, meanders through as Harmony’s fussbudget dad. Charles Grodin’s appearance only makes you want to watch Midnight Run again. Danny DeVito plays Jackie’s long-suffering brother. (Maybe Joe Pesci declined the role—after all, we know how he feels about Louie.)
The other real-life comedians with cameos only sharpen the juxtaposition with De Niro’s tin ear. Billy Crystal, playing himself, is more drolly funny in thirty seconds of screen time than Jackie is over two hours, and as always, a little Leslie Mann goes a long way. The real problem is that the film never dissects the origin of Jackie or Harmony’s inner angst. You feel like the veil is lifting when Jackie alludes to a neglected childhood during one of his sets.
But alas, it turns out to be just one more off-color decoy. The hunt for narrative tension between Jackie and Harmony takes an ugly turn late in the film, which, lacking the complexity and intelligence for a suitable resolution, instead offers an insultingly tidy one. The final gag is an eight-year-old using “fuck” as her punch line. Turns out the joke’s on us.