Robert De Niro’s legendary career has earned him a place in the pantheon of great actors, but his current streak of mediocrity truly disappoints, with his new film “The Comedian” falling right in with the trend.
The film aims to be recognized as a heartfelt dramedy, but its weak character development lands it somewhere between a meandering mess and a second-rate Woody Allen imitation.
De Niro plays Jackie Burke, an aging insult comic known for his role in “Happy Days” -like sitcom, “Eddie’s Home,” as the goofy father. At the beginning of the film, Burke is touring comedy bars around New York City, resisting requests to say the classic lines of his former character while also trying to make a name for himself as a stand-up comedian. When prank vloggers interrupt one of his shows, Burke loses his temper and lashes out, resulting in spending a short stint in prison and doing community service.
While serving out his community service sentence, Burke meets Harmony Schiltz (Leslie Mann), a younger, but still not quite young, daughter of millionaire Mac Schiltz (Harvey Keitel). Harmony is a free spirit who forces the world to meet her on her own terms, disappointing her father. The film focuses on the dynamic between Burke and Harmony but is filled in with smaller roles for a brilliant supporting cast including Danny DeVito, Patti LuPone and Cloris Leachman.
What makes watching “The Comedian” fun is mostly the result of great actors playing roles they obviously enjoy and not because of any substantial plot content. When entertaining secondary characters enter the scene, such as Lupone’s Leachman and DeVito’s exasperated brother, the movie loses its rhythm.
Celebrity comedians also play cameo roles in the film, such as the notably odd and self-serving decision to have Billy Crystal as himself. This raises the question: In the universe the movie has created, does the 1999 film “Analyze This,” starring Billy Crystal and Robert De Niro, exist? It raises the question for the viewer, if Billy Crystal exists, does Robert De Niro? It is a distractingly odd choice that rips the viewer out of the film just to wink at the audience.
The plot of the film is hard to describe in detail simply because there isn’t much of it to begin with. “The Comedian” goes where it feels, which works for some movies, but this requires compelling, well-written leads, which this film lacks. Though De Niro and Mann have strong chemistry and act well together, their roles are so paper-thin that they are impossible to emotionally invest in. Burke makes a few turns in the last act that show some hints of depth, but Mann is underserved, with a typical love interest role and not much else, save for an out-of-nowhere, groan-inducing “twist.”
Director Taylor Hackford fails to add anything to the film, as the only semblance of style is relaxed jazz music and exterior shots of New York between scenes. Reportedly, De Niro has tried to make “The Comedian” for eight years, with a rotating door of directors including even Martin Scorcese. One cannot help but wish to see Scorcese’s version of this film, replacing Hackford’s drab, imitative direction with visually
Like last year’s German film “Toni Erdmann,” “The Comedian” attempts to tell a comedic story with a focus on characters rather than humor. But where “Erdmann” played on the overworn dramedy tropes, “The Comedian” falls headfirst into them, leaving an empty but somewhat amusing time at the movies.