AFI Fest Review: ‘THE COMEDIAN’ – You laughin’ at me? You laughin’ at me?!

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

THE COMEDIAN | 1h 59min  | R
Directed by: Taylor Hackford
Starring: Robert De NiroLeslie MannCloris Leachman, Danny DeVito, Harvey Keitel, Edie Falco, Patti LuPone

There have been many, many films about comedians – mostly delving into their unique processes, complex psyches and finely tuned neuroses. PUNCHLINE, LENNY, MAN ON THE MOON, ENTERTAINMENT, OBVIOUS CHILD, SLEEPWALK WITH ME, THE KING OF COMEDY, FUNNY PEOPLE, and even the insightful documentary DYING LAUGHING all tell of their struggles not only to make it onto a stage, but carry an act successfully, dodging hecklers and making people laugh. Basically, it takes an extra-special amount of skill to craft something with originality. While director Taylor Hackford’s THE COMEDIAN adds a few refreshing sentiments into the mix in its attempt to be THE WRESTLER for the comedian set, on the whole, it’s more of a strained portrait of a middling comedian.

Misanthrope Jackie Burke (Robert De Niro) is an insult comic who’s more famous for his HONEYMOONERS/ ALL IN THE FAMILY-esque TV show persona, Eddie, than he is from his stand-up act. Lately, his career’s been floundering, playing half-filled gigs in tiny clubs in podunk towns. But he hasn’t reached rock bottom just yet. He’s gotta punch an obnoxious heckler and get sent to jail for that to happen. As he waits for his manager Miller (Edie Falco) to find him his comeback gig, he attempts to make amends with his estranged brother (Danny DeVito) and sassy sister-in-law (Patti Lupone). He’s also been tasked to do community service at a homeless shelter where he meets cantankerous Harmony (Leslie Mann), who’s doing time for punching her cheating ex and the mistress. She’s vivacious, but also broken, riddled with daddy issues – and Jackie wants to fix her, but he’s gotta fix himself first (well, sorta).

It’s a shame this film doesn’t quite come together the way it thinks it does. Working from a script cobbled together by four writers (Lewis Friedman, Richard LaGravenese, Jeffrey Ross and Art Linson), Hackford is unable to weave all the story threads in a succinct fashion. There’s little to no heart and emotional drive infused into the narrative. Ground is left unexplored with Jackie’s relationship dynamic with Miller, who, we’re told, inherited the gig from her father. Anything dealing with Harmony’s overbearing, wealthy douchebag father, Mac (Harvey Keitel), is fat that needs trimming. Why do we care about Mac? And if he’s not there for Harmony to tell him off (something she never does), why is he included? The script fails to even ask necessary act-one-type questions of its hero: What’s the lesson Jackie has to learn? What’s his arc? What’s the conflict – and how will he redeem himself? What are the emotional and dramatic stakes? None of this really begins to form until late in act two and unfortunately there’s only flimsy answers awaiting in act three.

Leslie Mann and Robert De Niro in THE COMEDIAN. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Leslie Mann and Robert De Niro in THE COMEDIAN. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Dated, forced “shenanigans” are also a big issue. The filmmakers seem to have gone out of their way to include things like “viral videos” as a plot device. We see three of them here – one of them being an auto-tuned, scatological-themed parody of “Making Whoopie” as if those kinds of videos are still a thing (they aren’t). They also attempt a “two-birds-one-stone” approach to skewering millennials and TV execs with their characterization of the androgynous idiotic reality-TV producer with vocal fry. Good intentions go awry, at least from the audience’s perspective, when Jackie takes Harmony on a first date that essentially services Jackie’s ego, taking her to the Comedy Cellar and showing off. Plus, cameos can be lovely, but they can also be distracting. I found myself wanting to hear more of their acts rather than Jackie’s, with the exception of his prize-winning wedding toast involving an uproarious bit about molestation.

Despite not completely gelling, there are a few highlights. It works to the picture’s advantage that they don’t show Jackie as completely bitter towards the thing that made him famous. Though hearing “Hey! Aren’t you Eddie from EDDIE’S HOME?” over and over gets annoying to the audience, he’s only mildly irked himself, showing actors must learn to embrace the art that others love more than they do. Terence Blanchard’s jazz score augments Jackie’s character, making a sonic correlation to his craft. Mann is a genuine gift and her reaction shots, meltdowns and vulnerable pathos are the reasons to stay tethered to the piece. Plus, Cloris Leachman, playing a Phyllis Diller-esque doyenne of the comedy circuit, is solid in her small supporting part.

THE COMEDIAN may flounder a bit on stage, but it won’t get yanked off by a giant cane.

THE COMEDIAN opens wide on February 3. It played AFI Fest on November 11 and 12.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.