It takes a special sort to be stand-up comic, a sort that’s not easily faked by even the best of actors. A few exceptions prove the rule: Adam Sandler in Funny People (directed by and written by people who have done stand-up), Mike Birbiglia in Sleepwalk with Me (writer-director Birbiglia does stand-up), and Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. The last one’s a cheat since Rupert Pupkin is a deluded psychopath and not an actual comedian, but De Niro at last plays a legit stand-up comic in the unfortunately unexceptional The Comedian.
Comedians are a notoriously unhappy lot, so The Comedian starts off on a credible foot by establishing De Niro’s character Jackie Burke, the 67-year-old former star of the “hit sitcom ‘Eddie’s Home,’” as a surly cynic and pessimist. On stage, Jackie comes from the insult-comic mold of Don Rickles, and it’s apparent The Comedian was developed expressly for the star to get to play in the arena of his Casino co-star Rickles, who tickled De Niro no end (ironically, Rickles has a reputation for being very sweet in real life, another interesting idea The Comedian isn't interested in).
But De Niro, while at times a skilled comic actor, is not the naturally funny type to embody a stand-up comic. His caustic routines have been scripted by top-dog roaster Jeff Ross (thank him for the movie’s only witty lines; blame three other screenwriters for the rest), and I suppose in a world in which Robert De Niro didn’t exist, Jackie Burke’s idiosyncratic persona might have a novelty. Mostly, though, this is the kind of movie about stand-up at which actual stand-ups scoff.
The meandering, some might say aimless, narrative begins in earnest once Jackie gets baited by a heckler and lands an assault charge. While doing community-service hours serving meals at a homeless shelter, Jackie meets fellow parolee Harmony (Leslie Mann), and the two strike up an unlikely romance, to the chagrin of her father (De Niro’s Mean Streets and Taxi Driver costar Harvey Keitel). They meet cute, date cute, argue, reconcile…surprise, this is a romantic comedy.
The Comedian has its not-unpleasant distractions, but it’s all distraction and no content: the score by accomplished composer Terence Blanchard, New York City locations, about a dozen stand-up-comic cameos, and a star-studded supporting cast (Danny DeVito and Patti LuPone as Jackie’s brother and sister-in-law, Edie Falco as his agent, Charles Grodin as Abbot of the Friars Club, Cloris Leachman as a comedy-world legend).
None of it can make us forget the movie’s essential corniness. There’s a reason why directors Martin Scorsese, Sean Penn, and Mike Newell all flitted on and off this weakly defined story before it landed with the obviously ill-suited Taylor Hackford (Ray). The Comedian is fluffy when it should be dark-tinged, and laughably self-serious when it should be funny. Spoiler: it turns out Jackie is a “stand-up” guy after all. If only De Niro had something to work with, he might have given us one of his subtler, superior performances. As it is, this stand-up gives you no reason to sit down.