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‘The Comedian’ Review: Robert De Niro Can’t Save Insult-Comic Character Study

Dramedy about an aggressive stand-up learning about redemption and love big on performances, light on everything else

'The Comedian' Review

Not even Robert De Niro can save 'The Comedian' – Peter Travers on why the insult-comic character study is big on acting and light on everything else.

Alison Cohen Rosa

Remember when Robert De Niro starred as wannabe standup comic Rupert Pupkin in Martin Scorsese’s classic The King of Comedy. Since Pupkin was a full-time sociopath, it came as huge surprise when this amateur had the goods to make a go at his five minutes of fame. As Jackie Burke in The Comedian, De Niro is playing a pro, an aging comic who long ago made his bones doing stand-up and starring in a hit TV sitcom, Eddie’s Home, that fans won’t let him forget. De Niro got under the skin of Pupkin. But as Jackie he seems stranded without a guide, unable to sell the insult jokes the script insists he’s so good at. Cameos from real comics such as Billy Crystal, Charles Grodin and Brett Butler, don’t help matters. The thin screenplay by Art Linson, Jeff Ross, Richard LaGravenese,and Lewis Friedman doesn’t give director Taylor Hackford (Ray) much to work with. But the actors give it their all.

The plot, in essence, gets Jackie arrested for assaulting a heckler at a TV nostalgia night. Doing community service, he meets Harmony (Leslie Mann, terrific) who’s in for going at her ex. It’s an age-inappropriate meet-cute, but De Niro and Mann make the most of it, finding nuance in a movie that otherwise kicks subtlety to the curb. The story is also padded with Jackie having run-ins with his brother (Danny DeVito) – who runs a diner with his complaining wife (Patti LuPone) – and his manager (Edie Falco) who seems to always be apologizing for the cheap gigs she gets him. Harmony must contend with her shady father (Harvey Keitel), who doesn’t like the idea of his daughter hooking up with a guy older than he is. Well, it is creepy.

The movie hits its nadir at a Florida retirement home where Jackie entertains the seniors by changing the old standard, “Makin’ Whoopie” to “Makin’ Poopie,” letting bathroom jokes fly along with gags about geezer sex. Whatever shard of real entertainment the film had in its earlier moments goes out the window with that one, leaving The Comedian down for the count. It plays like an opportunity missed.

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