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In Theaters: THE COMEDIAN (2016)

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THE COMEDIAN
(US/UK/China - 2016)

Directed by Taylor Hackford. Written by Art Linson, Jeff Ross, Richard LaGravenese and Lewis Friedman. Cast: Robert De Niro, Leslie Mann, Danny DeVito, Harvey Keitel, Edie Falco, Charles Grodin, Cloris Leachman, Patti Lupone, Lucy DeVito, Veronica Ferres, Lois Smith. (R, 120 mins)

It's pretty ballsy of Robert De Niro to attempt comedy in the same year he gave us the unspeakable DIRTY GRANDPA, but THE COMEDIAN (given a very limited Oscar-eligibility run in December 2016 but only now rolling out nationwide) is a project he and producer/co-writer Art Linson have had in various stages of development for nearly a decade. If there's a sense of familiarity to the end result, it's coming from a couple of different directions: De Niro already tackled stand-up comedy decades ago in Martin Scorsese's 1983 cult classic THE KING OF COMEDY, and the whole idea of following a working, schlepping stand-up has been seen over several seasons of Louis C.K.'s revered FX series LOUIE. Hell, there's even a scene of De Niro walking down the street and shaking hands with the door guy as he walks down into the entrance of the Comedy Cellar, almost straight out of LOUIE's opening credits. All that's missing is a revamped theme song that goes "Bobby, Bobby, Bobby, Bobbbbyyyyyy!"






De Niro is Jackie Burke, a 67-year-old shock comic best known for a MARRIED WITH CHILDREN-style sitcom he did in the 1980s called EDDIE'S HOME, where he played a working-class blowhard cop named Eddie, as crass as Al Bundy and with his own catchphrase he always shouted to his wife: "Arleeeeeeene!" Now scraping by doing nostalgia gigs in rinky-dink clubs where he shares the bill with Brett Butler and Jimmie Walker (a ton of stand-up luminaries young and old appear in cameos as themselves). Jackie is confronted in mid-act by heckling fan demanding he shout his catchphrase. A scuffle ensues resulting in Jackie decking the guy and the whole thing is caught on cell phone video and goes viral. After refusing to apologize to the guy in court, he's sentenced to 30 days in jail and 100 hours of community service. Once he's out, he spends his community service hours at a NYC soup kitchen where he befriends Harmony (Leslie Mann), who's also spending court-appointed time after assaulting her philandering boyfriend and his other girlfriend. Harmony is desperately trying to find a place for herself after spending most of her adult life screwing up and blowing opportunities, and wants to get out from under the thumb of her wealthy, mob-connected father Mac Schiltz (Harvey Keitel), refusing his offer to buy her out of her sentence with a judge friend and move down to his Florida home. Instead, she bonds with Jackie and a tentative romance blossoms as Jackie tries to rebuild his career, which is stuck in an endless rut: even though his fellow stand-ups revere him for his stage act, all any TV execs and fans on the street want from him is "Eddie" and his stupid catchphrase.


Considering he probably can't go a day without someone quipping "You talkin' to me?" to him, there's a lot of De Niro in Jackie as everyone he encounters demands he give them an "Arleeeeeene!" But THE COMEDIAN stumbles where it matters most: De Niro's stand-up bits as Jackie just aren't funny. Often, they're cringe-inducing in a bad way and too reliant not just on playing blue but going for that same kind of pointless raunch and childishly scatalogical way that torpedoed DIRTY GRANDPA. Is this a De Niro thing? Is this his sense of humor? Is Jackie playing to a crowd of seniors in a retirement home and changing the words of "Makin' Whoopee!" to "Makin' Poopie!" supposed to be funny? Considering Jackie's status as a legend among his peers (Jim Norton, after another Jackie video blows up online: "You're more viral than Charlie Sheen!"), his routine is pretty hacky, whether he's entertaining the homeless at the shelter or cracking gay and Jewish jokes at his niece's (Lucy DeVito) wedding to her same-sex partner, an act that includes one-liners about collecting the semen of homeless guys and doesn't go over well with Jackie's long-suffering brother Jimmy (Danny DeVito) and his shrewish wife Flo (Patti Lupone). While the stage bits tank, there's other pleasures to be had with THE COMEDIAN: it's great to see De Niro and DeVito busting each others' balls in their scenes together, and it's always a welcome sight to see De Niro and Keitel onscreen together, especially when Jackie talks about wanting to "bang the shit out of" Harmony and calls Mac "Pops."


Director Taylor Hackford and the screenwriters (among them Linson, journeyman Richard LaGravenese, and "Roastmaster General" Jeff Ross) take the story down an admirably dark detour when Jackie's long-suffering manager (Edie Falco) gets him a spot on the dais at a Friars Club roast of the beloved, 95-year-old Betty White-like screen and TV legend May Miller (Cloris Leachman) and she drops dead in the middle of his turn at the mic ("I didn't even get to my best lines!" Jackie grumbles). Terence Blanchard's melancholy jazz score combined with the location work in a Manhattan where it's constantly raining and gray does a wonderful job of conveying the sense of gloom and desperation Jackie feels over his career, with Hackford really succeeding in creating a very authentic "New York City" feel that makes the city an actual character in the story, and that's something you don't see much of these days. Likewise with the setting, there's also occasions where it has somewhat of a Woody Allen mix of comedy and drama going on, especially with the romantic pairing of 73-year-old De Niro and 44-year-old Mann. THE COMEDIAN has genuine affection for the world of the working comedian, and the roster of cameos is impressive--Norton (who served as a technical adviser), Butler, Walker, Hannibal Buress, Nick DiPaolo, Billy Crystal, Richard Belzer, Gilbert Gottfried, Stewie Stone, and Freddie Roman among others can be spotted--but Jackie's routines just don't cut it, even though the audience and everyone else within earshot are always doubled over with laughter. De Niro nails the body language, the stage presence, and the mannerisms of a veteran stand-up, but his act sounds like stuff that didn't make the cut of DIRTY GRANDPA (jokes about jerking off, pulling out, making the cunnilingus gesture at May, etc), and the improbably feel-good ending is just lazy. There's a charming, insightful film that manages to make its presence known throughout THE COMEDIAN, but the comedy doesn't hold up its end of the bargain


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