For many film fans the chance to see Robert De Niro reteamed with “Taxi Driver” co-star Harvey Keitel or his “Midnight Run” buddy Charles Grodin would be irresistible. The kind of magic created in those pair ups is the stuff of legend. “The Comedian,” a new film directed by Taylor Hackford, mixes and matches De Niro with his former co-stars but fails to recapture old glories.
De Niro is Jackie Burke, a comedian whose stand up career is in a downward spiral. Once a beloved sitcom star, the dirty-mouthed comic earns bad press when he punches a heckler at a TV Nostalgia Night gig and gets thrown in jail. After serving thirty days he’s sentenced to community service, working at a homeless shelter. There he meets the unpredictable Harmony (Leslie Mann), daughter of a mob boss (Keitel) doing time there for punching her ex-husband. They hit it off, spending time together as Jackie tries to rebuild his career. When he’s not insulting folks at comedy clubs he’s borrowing money from his brother (Danny DeVito) and making his manager’s (Edie Falco) life difficult.
“The Comedian” promises much. Keitel, Grodin, Mann and Falco are a dream team and De Niro’s turn in “The King of Comedy” suggests he might do something interesting with the Jackie character. Unfortunately “The Comedian” has more in common with “Dirty Grandpa” than “The King of Comedy.” Any movie that features a take off on “Makin’ Whoopee” retitled “Makin’ Poopy” isn’t aiming that high.
De Niro never convinces as a stand up comic. Jackie may be desperate to kick-start his career but apparently he’s not desperate enough to come up with material that might actually make someone laugh. Part of it is De Niro’s cue card delivery, part is the generally disagreeable nature of the character. Jackie humour comes from anger but instead of channelling that rage into an interesting storyline, he simply punches a heckler or unleashes invective on those around him. In short, he’s an a-hole, an a-hole who is in virtually every frame of the film.
“The Comedian” promises much but doesn’t deliver and in comedy delivery is everything.