The title offers the first clue about what's off. Calling this movie The Comedian suggests that Robert De Niro will be playing something definitive or archetypal, as if there's just one kind of stand-up comic, as if he's representing a genus rather than embodying someone singular. A glut of other projects — sitcoms and movies and podcasts — could share the name. Tell a friend you've bought a ticket to see The Comedian, and unless you're De Niro himself that friend will ask which one?
Only Neil Hamburger's life-as-a-comic movie dared a more pompously general title — Entertainment — and that film was the sickest of jokes about the American tendency to find romance in the souls of men who make a living talking about jerking off. De Niro's playing one of those guys, a type, the prickly prick whose mind processes any input it's given into rote dick jokes. Taylor Hackford’s movie mistakes that weary habit for a rare talent, and the audiences De Niro's comic performs for erupt into joyous, scandalized laughter.
They can't believe he's noticed that the microphone is shaped like a penis! Or that he schools a squealing bachelorette party by telling the bride-to-be that she's now going to be stuck with one dick for the rest of her life! The crowd whoops like nobody's ever said something like that before. He's the comedian, after all — what's it matter, to us in the real world, that he sounds like your uncle playing along with an episode of @midnight?
Hackford's film, a no-stakes episodic hangout character study, offers few fresh insights into the comedy mind. There aren’t a lot of laughs, either, which is a problem when there are so many scenes of stand-up. De Niro gives a committed performance, and he's compelling in scenes of bickering and uncertainty, especially when he has strong acting partners: Leslie Mann as the younger woman with whom his comic inevitably gets entangled; Danny DeVito as the brother from whom he bums money; Edie Falco as the off-the-wall manager who can only find him gigs on Long Island; and Billy Crystal, briefly, as a Friars Club pal and rival. In these moments De Niro's Jackie Burke becomes specific and interesting, a frustrating man who none of these people can quite dismiss.
De Niro's convincing as a prick. He's less so as a performing comedian. His material is unstamped by any unique perspective, and his delivery lacks music or surprise — De Niro gets the jokes out, but he doesn't put them over. Actual working comics often turn up, in montages at the Comedy Cellar, and the contrast does De Niro no favors. Hannibal Buress gets you laughing before he catches you up in his drift of mind, keeps you pleasurably off balance with his rhythms, gets you to anticipate where he’s going and then still be surprised when he gets there — your brain dances with his all the way to the joke. Jackie just expectorates punchlines.
At first, the film seems to be a study of a man who has lost his way. It opens with a nostalgia-night show in Hicksville, New York, hosted by Jimmie Walker. It's an embarrassing gig, one playing on Jackie's long-gone days as the star of a hacky sitcom. His jokes seem stale, but just when you think The Comedian might be about this guy bottoming out and rediscovering his muse, the Hicksville crowd is eating them right up — turns out The Comedian actually thinks Jackie's artist enough as it is.
A heckler jumps in to kickstart what little story there is. In a couple of clumsy scenes, Jackie clobbers him, gets charged with assault and soon, as part of his community service, is treating the homeless guys at the soup kitchen to jokes about Pilgrims fucking turkeys. There he meets a troubled beauty played by Mann, and if the description “troubled beauty” bugs you, blame the movie, not me. Her only traits are her temper, some daddy issues (her pa is played by Harvey Keitel, who occasionally gives De Niro some admirable stink eye) and an eagerness to gush praise upon dude comedians. Somehow, Mann invests this slip of a character with biting, wounded charisma, even if the final scenes let her down.
Not much of this is funny, and none is outrageous; director Hackford (Ray, The Devil's Advocate, An Officer and a Gentleman) is more adept at melodrama than comedy set pieces. But The Comedian has some muted charm as it bops amiably from incident to incident, helped along by glistening rainy-city digital photography and trumpeter/composer Terence Blanchard's tasty small-group jazz score. (The Comedian's jazz advocacy is more persuasive than La La Land's; here, the music flows and pulses, brightening everyday life rather than demanding ascetic devotion.) Surprisingly, for a movie with such a strong ensemble, The Comedian’s best, warmest moment involving De Niro comes when Jackie is alone, ironing his pants, reciting a Pee Wee Marquette introduction along with an Art Blakey record. Briefly, Jackie becomes fascinating.
Through it all, Jackie isn't quite engaged with the world around him. He vacillates between sweet and sour; occasionally, he'll speak some tough truth that a stranger records and that then goes viral online. He faces no real problems, discovers little about himself and reveals even less about the inner lives of comedians, one of our popular culture's most well-mapped landscapes.
Still, De Niro's commitment to the character sometimes prevails over the mundanity of Jackie. Late in the film, he performs stand-up at a retirement home, eventually urging the octogenarians to join him in a song about how hard it is to defecate in old age. The scene at first struck me as the film's nadir, a repeat of the potty humiliations of the Fockers franchise. But De Niro's Jackie keeps at it, keeps hamming and sweating, plugging away like Jake LaMotta in the ring. He pummeled me until I laughed. No joke — “Making Poopie” is his finest moment onscreen in years.