Film Review: The Comedian

Alleged comedy starring Robert De Niro as a third-rate, has-been comic whose specialty is foul-mouthed crudeness.
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The sorry, marginalized world of standup comics is juicy fodder for movies and always has been—from the most stellar (John Osborne’s The Entertainer, with Laurence Olivier in a brilliant performance) to the less impressive but nonetheless endurable Punch Line, Funny People and Sleepwalk with Me. If nothing else, you know what they’re about.

That’s more than you can say for Taylor Hackford’s The Comedian, a wit-free comedy that defies classification (and not in a good way). One thing is clear. Robert De Niro has a homing instinct for the modern-day Pagliacci.

In Martin Scorsese’s 1983 The King of Comedy, he played Rupert Pupkin, an unknown standup and a full-blown wackadoodle who is so determined to nab his three minutes of fame he kidnaps his icon, the nationally celebrated TV host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), and demands as ransom the chance to do the opening monologue on Langford’s show. It’s a bizarre little flick but boasts a quirky charm.

In Hackford’s doozy—scripted by Art Linson, Jeff Ross, Richard LaGravenese and Lewis Friedman—De Niro is Jackie Burke (born Berkowitz), an aging has-been best known for his brief stint starring on a 1970s TV sitcom, “Eddie.” The titular character was a fatuous husband-dad whose signature phrase, “Ar-lee-ee-eene…,” is a tremulous plaintive howl, one assumes directed at his beleaguered wife.

Decades later, the show still has devotees and no matter how hard Jackie tries to shed his outlived TV persona, his fans (and there aren’t many) are interested in Burke only if he reprises his legendary “Ar-lee-ee-eene...”

A foul-mouthed and utterly unfunny performer in the Andrew Dice Clay vein, Burke is attempting to make a comeback and eke out a few dollars on the nightclub circuit. With the help of his tough but goodhearted agent (Edie Falco), he lands an occasional gig in dives where he’s mostly ignored or heckled, short of none-too-polite shout-outs for his catchphrase.

After punching one such pest in the nose (Oh, did I mention Burke has anger-management issues?), he’s arrested and sentenced to community service, where he falls for Harmony (Leslie Mann), also doing community service for assaulting her ex-husband. A love story of sorts follows, though it’s hardly smooth sailing thanks in part to her intrusive thug father Mac (Harvey Keitel), who runs a retirement home in Florida and is not happy about Harmony’s new boyfriend, who’s as old as he is. Harmony’s relationship with her father is flirtatious and creepy.

Jackie has family baggage too: his deli-owner brother (Danny Devito), a hard-working drudge, and his perennially livid sister-in-law Flo (Patti LuPone), whose mouth is set in a permanent scowl. LuPone’s expression (and it’s worthy of an enraged drag queen) is sheer artistry.

Typical of this misconceived hodgepodge is the oddball casting. It’s a Jewish family played by Italian actors, each of whom is stereotypically Italian. Perhaps Hackford thinks all ethnic minorities are the same. It doesn’t matter anyway. This film is an equal-opportunity offender. Gays come in for it too and the elderly fare worst of all.

At the Jewish wedding hosted by the Berkowitz parents (who are clearly Italian), their lesbian daughter clad in a bridal gown is tying the knot with her butch girlfriend sporting a man’s white suit. Beneath the chuppah, the glass is shattered, kisses are exchanged, a rabbi pronounces them wife and wife. Uncle Jackie, always in standup mode, toasts the newlyweds with this quip, “There’s an elephant in the room.” Beat. “My niece’s wife is not Jewish.” Everyone dances the hora.

The nuptial festivities conclude with Flo physically attacking Jackie and Harmony for reasons that elude this reviewer’s memory, not that it’s relevant. The host and guests coming to fisticuffs is as probable and fetching as the rest of it.

But nothing is tackier than Jackie entertaining the residents at Mac’s retirement community with his rendition of “Making Whoopie,” now morphed into “Making Poopie.” With mike in hand and weaving in and out among the aged and infirm—indeed galvanizing them to cheerfully sing along—it’s a downright musical celebration of incontinence and other toilet mishaps afflicting the elderly.

So, Jackie is a degraded human being living in a degraded universe forced to degrade himself at every step of his downward journey in order to survive. And just in case the viewer doesn’t get it, towards the end our failed comic, now at the bottom of the bottom feeders, earns his keep as a slimy host on a “Survivor”-like reality program where a stripped contestant lies in a coffin-shaped box as Jackie pours buckets of carnivorous crawfish onto the man’s bloodied chest, while taunting him and hurling insults at the audience.

The creative team adheres to the aesthetic “If in doubt, throw it in,” including a wholly gratuitous Friars Club roast, featuring cameos by comics playing themselves (e.g., Billy Crystal, Richard Belzer) and later a sentimental bit with Harmony wanting a baby and Jackie equivocating. Their child turns out to be the child from hell. Who would have guessed?

Four screenwriters onboard is never a good sign. One wonders what their collective intentions were (if any). Is The Comedian a sendup, and if so, what’s being satirized? Or is it an existential character study? That’s fine if the character were interesting. Jackie is a boor and a bore. Even De Niro can’t salvage this one. Still, it’s not a total loss. There is LuPone’s high-camp grimace.

Check out The Entertainer for the real deal.

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