D: Taylor Hackford / 120m
Cast: Robert De Niro, Leslie Mann, Harvey Keitel, Edie Falco, Danny DeVito, Patti LuPone, Charles Grodin, Cloris Leachman, Veronica Ferres, Lois Smith
Jackie Burke (De Niro) is an aging stand-up comedian who is famous for having appeared in a very successful sitcom thirty years ago, called Eddie’s Home. His career is somewhat in the doldrums, with his agent, Miller (Falco), unable to get him any really well-paid gigs. But he’s well liked and respected on the comedy circuit, and his act – as an insult comedian – is well received also. But one night, while he’s on stage he’s heckled by a member of the audience. The heckling takes a more serious turn when Jackie assaults the man responsible and winds up in court. Tasked with making a sincere apology to the man, Jackie refuses, and is sent to prison for thirty days. And when he’s released he has to perform a hundred hours community service.
Community service turns out to be helping at a mission, serving food and providing clothing to the local homeless. There, Jackie meets Harmony Schiltz (Mann), who is there because she assaulted her boyfriend and the woman he was having an affair with. There’s an attraction there on Jackie’s part, but not on Harmony’s. He does persuade her to go out with him (as an appointment, not a date), and Harmony has such a good time, she agrees to go with him to his niece’s wedding. They miss the actual ceremony, but are in time for the reception, where Jackie – at his neice’s insistence but to the horror of her parents Jimmy (DeVito) and Florence (LuPone) – gives a speech. It’s peppered with swear words, deliberately offensive, but by and large, is exactly what his niece wanted.
The next night, Jackie acts as a birthday present for Mac Schiltz (Keitel), Harmony’s father. He’s a big fan of Eddie’s Home, and can’t resist pushing Jackie to recite some of the character’s catchphrases. Mac also harangues Harmony over her community service, and tells her she can complete it in Florida where she can also resume the work she did at a retirement home her father owns. Jackie takes exception to the way Mac treats her, and they leave earlier than planned. A few drinks later, and back at Harmony’s apartment, their relationship takes an unexpected turn. The next day, Harmony has left for Florida, and Jackie resumes looking for the kind of work that will pay handsomely and restore his standing with bookers and club owners. But when he tries to contact Harmony, she doesn’t reply to his calls or his texts…
Every now and again, a movie comes along that provokes antipathy and dissatisfaction in equal measure, and which causes the viewer to wonder why on earth said movie was even made in the first place. The Comedian is such a movie. It’s one of those movies that doesn’t make sense when you consider the talent involved, and the potential it holds. But this really is a movie that makes so little impact, and which has so little meaning that it’s hard to understand why everyone involved in its making didn’t spot it sooner. The original story and screenplay is by the producer Art Linson, and he’s been aided and abetted by Richard LaGravenese, Lewis Friedman and Jeff Ross. That’s a talented group of people, but between them they’ve written a flat, uninspired screenplay that’s replete with redundant scenes, a minimum of effort in terms of the characters (say hello to more borderline stereotypes in one movie than you’ve seen in a very long time indeed), yet another of Hollywood’s bizarre and unconvincing attempts at portraying a May-December relationship, and perhaps unsurprisingly given the project’s long gestation period, jokes that would have been funny five or six years ago, but which now sound stale and in need of a rethink.
This is first and foremost meant to be a drama, as Jackie struggles to maintain a livelihood that doesn’t have anything to do with, or depend upon, Eddie’s Home. He hates reciting the catchphrases, complains bitterly at how much his TV success is ruining his stand-up career, and behaves in a churlish, emotionally dysfunctional way that is unattractive, unendearing, and unapologetic. He’s not quite a relic from a different age of entertainment, but in a time when diversity is a key component of social interaction, Jackie is so far behind in his thinking it’s unlikely he’ll ever catch up. His material is offensive at times, and not because Jackie doesn’t understand context (which might make his jokes more acceptable), but because he doesn’t care enough about context to include it. And this leads to much of his stand-up material being as far from funny as you can get. There’s an incredibly awkward, uncomfortable scene in Mac Schiltz’s retirement home that sees Jackie improvise an act around the elderly residents and their sexual proclivities (or Jackie’s idea of their proclivities), and reworking the song “Makin’ Whoopee” into “Makin’ Poopee”. It’s hard to know who to feel the more sorry for: De Niro for playing the scene and not being able to make it work, or the writers for including it and thinking it could work.
Jackie’s relationship with Harmony is another area where the script struggles to make any headway, aiming for a mixture of cute flirtations and meaningful glances to provide the (un)necessary romantic shorthand, and failing to convince audiences that Harmony would be attracted to Jackie at any point, let alone take him back to her apartment after she’s been drinking a lot and do something she “wants to do”. This is the kind of lazy dialogue screenwriters come up with when they have no credible basis for a character to behave in such a way, and it’s disheartening to see the main female character treated in such a cavalier fashion (Mann does what she can, but sadly it’s not much in the face of such blatant sexism.) And try as they might, De Niro and Mann don’t exactly light up the screen with their chemistry together.
Making only his third feature since the Oscar-winning Ray (2004), Taylor Hackford gives no indication that he’s engaged with the material, and the movie coasts along in first gear for much of its running time, muddling through its contentious romantic scenario without any recourse to enthusiasm, and staging the stand-up routines with all the flair of a director who’s heard that the camera doesn’t have to be static but who doesn’t trust it all the same. The Comedian was never going to be a visually arresting movie, even with Oliver Stapleton behind the lens (he’s Lasse Hallström’s cinematographer of choice), but it’s such a bland, unappealing movie to watch that you end up being unsurprised. After all, if the material is bland and unappealing then what chance does any other production aspect have?
Even the participation of real life comedians such as Brett Butler, Hannibal Buress and Jim Norton doesn’t add any verisimilitude to proceedings, because Grodin’s Friars Club bigwig aside, everyone loves Jackie and his act. And so too does the Internet, with three(!) videos of him going viral in quick succession and each time boosting his flagging career. It would have been a sloppy plot device if it was used just the once, but three times reeks of desperation, and each time it happens it doesn’t help propel the story forward because the script resolutely refuses to exploit the idea in any sensible or confident way. Jackie becomes even more famous than he already is – and that’s about it. No character development (or at least none that isn’t trite and/or clichéd), and no reason to believe that any might be forthcoming. Like the movie as a whole, it doesn’t matter what happens to Jackie because whatever it is, it will be of little consequence, and as a result, will have no effect on the audience either.
Rating: 4/10 – dramatically poor and comedically estranged, The Comedian is a movie that feels tired from the off, and which never has the energy to drag itself up out of the same doldrums where Jackie’s career is stranded; with no ambition or sense of its own inconsequence, it’s a movie that plays for two hours and barely registers as an experience, so slight and insubstantial is it.