Robert De Niro’s latest venture is in Taylor Hackford’s “The Comedian,” in which he plays the titular character Jackie Burke. Burke is an aging star whose best years are behind him. Known for his turn as a character on an ’80s sitcom, Burke is trying to make a comeback on the standup comedy circuit. After Jackie gets sent to prison for assaulting a man at one of his shows, he is forced to do community service in New York. There, he meets Harmony Schiltz, played by Leslie Mann.
He quickly finds interest in Harmony who recognizes him as the star of her father’s favorite television show. After working together a few times, Jackie invites her to his niece’s wedding. While Jackie wants to remain in the background, Harmony and his niece encourage him to do a quick set as the latter’s wedding gift, against the wishes of his brother and sister-in-law (played by Danny DeVito and Patti LuPone, respectively). After a dirty, raunchy and genuinely funny piece, Jackie and Harmony leave with a little more affection for each other than before.
The film is a dark comedy and a romance, but it doesn’t know where to draw the line. It’s funny only due to Jackie’s source material. The romantic subplot, which is probably the most interesting feature of the film, falls short in nearly every way. The romance between De Niro and Mann is believable only for the actors’ performances, which are the highlights of the entire film. The story twists and turns at a grinding pace and tries to invoke some shocking moments that become mundane after a few moments due to slow pacing. The film has good intentions and the story is heartfelt at its base, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired, which is especially annoying when it has such great talent to work with.
The talent is easily the best part of the film. Between De Niro, DeViot, Mann, Lupone and a great turn from Harvey Keitel, the acting prowess on screen is terrific. Each has their own moment in the film that saves the otherwise boring and uninspired story, but it’s not enough for the entire movie. The family dynamic between Jackie, his brother and his sister-in-law, as well as that of Harmony and her father (Keitel) are interesting comparisons, but there is not nearly enough attention drawn to the possible mirroring they could achieve.
The film draws from a basic storyline that is pretty simple. Burke gets arrested, he meets Harmony, he falls for her, and complications arise. The problem is that it doesn’t do nearly enough to separate itself from any other film in its place. It’s nearly reminiscent of Judd Apatow’s “Funny People,” in which Mann plays nearly the same character. The only redeeming quality of the film outside of its performances is the soundtrack.
A film filled with blues and jazz renditions that flow over the dreary New York backdrop make the transition scenes a little more interesting. It’s not a great thing, however, to have your transition scenes be more compelling than the majority of your film. The aforementioned dreary backdrop set an interesting tone in the beginning of the film but became much more confusing when the characters went to sunny Florida and the music continued. Not much was aligned properly and while the elements of a quality piece of art exist within “The Comedian,” it’s like picking out needles in an occasionally funny haystack.
The movie’s emotions were just hard to understand. The tones shifted recklessly and made it pretty difficult to follow. The characters would go through such peaks and valleys without time to flesh out their responses and it was tough finding the emotional impact.
“The Comedian” is a movie that had many of the typical features of a good film but was one in which none of them were put together. In another attempt it might make a solid work of art, but for now it’s nothing more than a poor showcase of many talented actors.