An aging stand-up comic in New York City with a checkered romantic past struggles to maintain his career. He’s best known for a toothless, lowbrow sitcom decades in his past, which he desperately wants to leave behind, but his fans won’t let him be anyone else. No, it’s not Louie or Bojack Horseman, both of which are infinitely more nuanced and insightful than anything to be found in The Comedian.
This stand-up is Jackie Burke (Robert De Niro), born Jacob Berkowitz, and famous as Eddie from Eddie’s Home, a seeming mashup of The Honeymooners and All In the Family, produced either in the ’70s or ’80s. His manager, known only by her last name Miller (Edie Falco), is the daughter of his first manager, the guy who got him the TV gig and was promptly dumped. And most of the gigs she can get him are TV nostalgia bits, like the one hosted by Jimmie “Dy-no-mite!” Walker where his set followed Brett Butler. No, the actress, not the baseball player.
That’s the show where a couple professional hecklers — O brave new world that has such YouTubers in it — get under his skin and he gives one of them the mike straight into his nose. After thirty days in jail he has a hundred hours of community service to work off, and that’s where he meets Harmony Schiltz (Leslie Mann), who has her own deep-seated issues.
If this were Louie or Bojack Horseman, the movie would admit that this is a train-wreck, and maybe tease out some sort of insight into the human condition of existing and going on with our broken lives. But Art Linson, who also wrote the inside-showbiz movie What Just Happened that starred De Niro as a blatant author-insert, isn’t remotely equipped to plumb such depths. And while Linson may have been able to draw on his experiences as a producer to write that screenplay, he’s evidently not a stand-up comedian, leading to punch-up credits for Comedy Central roastmaster Jeff Ross, veteran screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, and Lewis Friedman, whose writing credits are dominated by awards-show patter.
De Niro isn’t much of a stand-up himself. He can run with a bit fine, but all the laughs come from the pros around him. It’s never clearer than when he gets into a live patter with Jessica Kirson at the Comedy Cellar and she runs rings around him. It’s hard to imagine him getting unscripted laughs, even with professionally-written material.
Which material isn’t exactly funny either, at least to me. I understand the idea that pro comedians build up a resistance to tamer jokes — movie critics get bored of unimaginative schtick too — but Jackie aims at Don Rickles and lands with about as much bite as Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. If that’s your thing, great, but it doesn’t do much for me.
And yet everywhere he goes, people love him. He holds up the line at the soup kitchen doing his bits, and nobody complains. His niece (Lucy DeVito) begs him to speak at her wedding, and only old sticks-in-the-mud like his brother (Danny DeVito) and sister-in-law (Patti LuPone) have a problem with him going blue. It’s hard to buy him having career trouble with the universally positive response he gets from every single crowd.
Maybe if the movie stuck to this romp through one clump of Comedy Central stars and Friar’s Club members after another, it might be a neat little medley. It could even bear the eyebrow-raising May-December romance between Mann and De Niro. Maybe it would work better as a series: one episode he takes her to Brittany’s wedding; the next she takes him to meet her father (Harvey Keitel) the Eddie’s Home fan; the next he tries to get a spot at the roast of a grand dame comedienne (Cloris Leachman). It still wouldn’t measure up to Louie or Bojack, but it might be entertaining.
But the only emotional depth here is centered on Jackie and Harmony’s relationship, which takes sudden swerves into territory the movie has not remotely laid the groundwork to support. They come up out of nowhere, drastically changing the tone, and with no commitment to follow-through on the issues they raise. From his producing career, Linson knows that comedic movies and television can be used to come at painful subject matter in a different way, but he hasn’t the slightest clue of why or how they do it.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.