There are many out there who will tell you that people don’t change, that we are who we are and that’s it. Such seems to be the philosophy behind the new Robert De Niro comedy, “The Comedian.”
Directed by Taylor Hackford and featuring a truly great cast, the movie finds De Niro front and center as Jackie Burke. A rather blue comedian, Burke at one time starred in a family-centered sitcom and despite it having been off the air for years, Burke is still best known for the comedy series and his work on it, even if that work doesn’t match his stand-up routine (Bob Saget springs to mind even if De Niro is certainly older). Sadly for him, Burke is no longer playing large gigs as he once was; no longer on TV; and, worse for everyone, he’s a pretty terrible person.
This is a guy who knows when he is pushing others too far and simply doesn’t care. Friends, family, strangers, Burke will verbally cut anyone to shreds and do it with a smile on his face. He pursues this course even if it means getting kicked out of his family’s life, Burke simply can’t help himself – he is a horrible person.
**a kinda spoilery discussion of the film’s issues exists below, not about what happens as much as about where things end up**
One of the problems with the film is not that Burke is awful, nor that Burke knows that he’s awful and doesn’t care, it’s that the entire two hours is simply devoted to him being awful, not caring, and not changing. He just lumbers through the entire thing, unchanged and unmoved from start to finish. The message, if there is one, seems to be, “be an a**hole your whole life, treat people horrifically, do whatever makes you happy, and screw anyone else. Don’t worry, it’ll all work out fine.” Now that I write that, “The Comedian” feels like Donald Trump’s sort of film.
Another major issue is that “The Comedian” can’t seem to figure out how the audience should take Burke’s comedy routines. The movie wants to make us laugh at his jokes and then be appalled that he would dare tell the very same jokes. Moreover, it wants us to do both without any sort of introspection about what that might mean about us. Whatever may happen with Burke, whatever the moral of the film may or may not be, it is an immensely difficult task to play these moments of cruel humor to make the audience laugh and to castigate the man telling the jokes. It is not a task at which the movie succeeds.
As noted above, “The Comedian” features a great cast including Leslie Mann, Edie Falco, Danny DeVito, Harvey Keitel, and Patti LuPone. Mann, strangely, plays Burke’s love interest, a girl with troubles all her own, including an overbearing father (Keitel), who may or may not have mob ties. DeVito is Burke’s brother and LuPone Burke’s sister-in-law. Those relationships are strained ones, as is every relationship in the comedian’s life, but that’s where the movie succeeds. De Niro is buoyed by those around him and better when forced to interact in small groups instead of large ones. Falco and Mann are particularly wonderful.
The shame of this is that just about every character in the movie is more interesting, more worthy of a film, than Jackie Burke. He’s just a funny guy who worked hard, made it big, and never learned to be a decent human.
Then, the movie also features comedians in cameo roles playing themselves, this group includes folks like Billy Crystal, Brett Butler, Hannibal Buress, and Jimmie Walker. While some of these cameos are great, the film is uneasy mixing them in with actors playing something other than a version of themselves. At one point, Cloris Leachman appears as an elderly comedienne being roasted by the Friars Club, but why she isn’t just playing herself is anyone’s guess. Running the roast is a character played by Charles Grodin and on the dais as themselves are Richard Belzer and Gilbert Gottfried (this last seemingly without lines). At these moments, rather than seeming realistic, the movie simply becomes confusing.
“The Comedian” feels like a bunch of varied, good, ideas stuck together to form a single movie. The problem is that they aren’t a single movie, they are a half-dozen different ones. Everything feels rushed as the story continually hops from one thing to another. I would actually really like to see any of the individual films – the one where Burke becomes a viral sensation accidentally, the one where he learns to be a good person through community service, the one where he deals with his family issues, the one where he finds love, the one where we learn about Mann’s character and her father, the one where… you get the idea.
I just want one of them – together they don’t work, but I’m still curious about each individual piece.
photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics