THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Because he is a phenomenally talented actor, Robert DeNiro is capable of doing comedy quite well. Midnight Run and Analyze This prove that fact. He is not, however, an intrinsically funny person. He does not have the thing that most comics have: a compulsive, possibly psychological need to earn laughs. That makes him an ill fit for The Comedian, a story about a man who drives himself to the brink of destruction over that need.
DeNiro plays Jackie Burke, an aging stand-up comedian who became a household name after starring in a cheesy sitcom. Long since retired from television, he makes a living doing late-night sets at comedy clubs. His act often entails taking out his inner rage upon the audience. (He's a more malicious Don Rickles.) Jackie wants to reinvent himself, but his fans only want to hear the familiar catchphrase he popularized. After a scuffle with an audience member, he is sentenced to community service at a soup kitchen. There, he meets Harmony (Leslie Mann), a fellow rage-a-holic whose father (Dennis Farina) is a shady real estate mogul. Jackie finds himself inspired by Harmony, and she helps him identify ways to reinvigorate himself professionally.
The Comedian wants to be a character study of a comic who doesn't see much in life worth laughing about anymore. Preventing its success is that the story really doesn't go anywhere special. Judd Apatow's Funny People and Louis CK's FX series Louie raised the bar for insightfully exploring the dramatic off-stage life of comedians. This movie, in contrast, has situations that are deeply contrived. You can practically feel the screenplay beating you over the head with Jimmy's dysfunction. For example, there's a scene where his lesbian niece asks him to speak at her wedding. Jimmy, desperate for approval, proceeds to do a vulgar impromptu routine that ends up sparking a fight with his brother (Danny DeVito) and shrill sister-in-law (Patti Lupone). It's not a bad idea, but it goes on and on, veering into borderline melodrama.
There are many moments just like that in the film. They might have played better if Jackie had stronger material. Comedian Jeff Ross co-wrote the screenplay, presumably to help create some stand-up authenticity. But the jokes Jackie tells simply aren't funny, so we never believe that he's a beloved performer. Yes, part of the story is that his gags aren't as sharp as they once were. Surely, though, someone with a career as successful as Jackie's would still have a few decent zingers in his repertoire. Consequently, the idea that the character was once a superstar comic never feels totally credible.
This problem comes to a head during a sequence in which Jackie shows up at the nursing home where Harmony gets a job. He's rejuvenated from spontaneously cracking jokes for the elderly. The result is a scatological rendition of “Makin' Whoopie” so pathetically dumb that one can't help but feel embarrassed about DeNiro having to perform it.
The actor does what he can, but the bottom line is that he's seriously miscast. The Comedian should have done for an older comic what Quentin Tarantino did for John Travolta in Pulp Fiction or Pam Grier in Jackie Brown. The part screams for the mainstream rediscovery of a faded icon. Jackie Mason might have killed in the role. Jerry Lewis might have, as well. DeNiro, talented as he is, feels like an actor portraying a comedian, rather than feeling like a real comedian.
While it fails in the big areas, the movie does possess some smaller pleasures. Leslie Mann is funny in anything she does, and she gives Harmony equal amounts of heart and edge. A few of the things The Comedian has to say about fame – that it's hard to get out from under the rock of a role that makes one a household name, for instance – have some undeniable merit. Director Taylor Hackford (Ray) also does a good job of capturing the feel of comedy clubs. Some of the real comedians making cameos earn laughs, too.
Despite those qualities, The Comedian is undone by its miscast lead, as well as a plot that is too shallow in the spots where it should be deep, and too heavy-handed in the spots where it should be subtle. A premise with massive potential ends up yielding a so-so movie.
( out of four)
The Comedian is rated R for crude sexual references and language throughout. The running time is 1 hour and 59 minutes.
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