Film Review: ‘The Comedian’ Is Not a Laugh-Out-Loud Comedy
The business of stand-up comedy is no laughing matter, which couldn’t be better illustrated than in The Comedian. Director Taylor Hackford skillfully inserts the characters’ warts and all into the unglamorous underbelly of the late night comedy world as seen through the eyes of stand-up comedian Jackie Burke (Robert De Niro). Hackford features real stand-up comedians like Brett Butler and Hannibal Buress working it in the actual venues like the West Village’s Comedy Cellar in New York City — which lends itself to an authentic experience of what the comedy club circuit is really like.
Burke is known mostly as Eddie from the sitcom Eddie’s Home. He desperately tries to get work outside and away from his television persona, but his fame has pigeonholed him — an irony that does not go unnoticed to De Niro’s inescapable Taxi Driver character. In fact in The Comedian, fans are constantly ‘doing’ Jackie and goading him to say his signature line, ‘Hey Arleeene! Eddie’s home!’ — not unlike ‘you talkin’ to me?!’
All these parallels make Robert De Niro the only choice for Burke, expertly weaving in and out of comedy and drama. The dramatic dialogue written by Art Linson and Richard LaGravenese balanced with comedic shtick from Jeff Ross and Lewis Friedman have given Robert De Niro the breathing room to be this dangerous and raunchy insult comic (he makes Don Rickles look like an angel). Not since his turn as the talk-show host stalker Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy has he been given free reign to chew up the scenery without being perceived as over the top — such as working the room at a nursing home that ends in a viral video singalong of ‘Making Poopie.’
That biting and obnoxious bravado is tempered in tender scenes with Leslie Mann who plays his love interest Harmony. Usually cast as the comedienne, she is more the ‘straight woman’ going toe-to-toe with De Niro, giving a vulnerable performance without a false note.
They meet doing community service — Burke for punching out a heckler with a microphone during one of his shows, and Harmony for assaulting her husband’s mistress. De Niro has his Officer And A Gentleman moment (a nod to Hackford) looking dashing when he comes to rescue Harmony from doing her ‘time’ at at the Floridian retirement home. It’s a match made in dysfunctional heaven.
Harvey Keitel as Harmony’s father Mac is none too pleased with their connection especially after being insulted by Burke for his horrible rendition of Eddie. This marks the seventh film collaboration featuring De Niro and Keitel who are tried and true foils. They previously starred together in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Falling in Love, Copland, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and Little Fockers.
The ensemble cast of The Comedian features seasoned comedic actor Danny DeVito as Burke’s deli-owning brother and Patti LuPone as his overbearing nudgey wife who is horrified by Burke’s bad behavior. Fun fact — the deli scenes take place in Ben’s Best Kosher Gourmet Delicatessen in Queens, New York who are milking the publicity along with their pastrami sandwich.
Edie Falco, underused as Burke’s manager, effectively executes the challenges ahead for Burke in a pitch meeting scene with prepubescent producers of RAW TV where he throws out such ideas as “Burke On The Block – it’s Breaking Bad on acid, but funny.”
Pain is a driving force behind comedy and you feel for Burke who refuses to ‘die’ up on that stage and sell out to reality television. At times, The Comedian seems like a cautionary tale rather than a comedy. It’s not designed to make you laugh out loud — but to contemplate in the face of misery how a dirty joke might be just what we need.