THE COMEDIAN makes me want to forgive Robert De Niro for BAD GRANDPA. Almost. This sharply drawn and wickedly sly character study of a man accepting the end of life as he knew it is the De Niro of RAGING BULL and the more recent, and criminally underappreciated, BEING FLYNN. This is the De Niro who cajoles the audience into empathizing with his character, while also refusing to pander to that same audience one whit.
He’s Jackie Burke, né Jacob Berkowitz, a stand-up comedian who softened his hard edges to star in an 80s TV sitcom, Eddie’s Home. It made him a star and forever stereotyped him as something other than the caustic comedian that he was. Here in the waning days of his career, he is playing nostalgia shows and commiserating with fellow faded sit-com stars. His latest gig, in a suitably monikerd Hicksville, NY, starts well-enough, with the small but enthusiastic crowd slowly warming to Jackie’s blistering brand of humor instead of that of the gentler Eddie the cop of yore. Alas things go south very quickly. An opportunistic, and thoroughly deplorable audience member goads him as part of his web series. Jackie takes it like a pro dealing with an ordinary heckler, but eventually blood is drawn, and not just metaphorically. Though Jackie is sentenced to 30 days in jail, and a further 100 hours of community service, his long-suffering agent, Miller (Edie Falco), sees an opportunity. The video of the fight goes viral, and thus begins the final stage of Jackie’s tumultuous career. Meanwhile, the community service at a local mission leads to the final stage of his personal life. That would be in the person of Harmony (Leslie Mann), a tough, tender, slightly high-strung but oddly endearing woman doing her own community service after assaulting her boyfriend.
What ensues is a wickedly funny and preternaturally perceptive consideration of a man who has chosen not to have a verbal filter when it comes to going along to get along. He is his own worst enemy, but that doesn’t make him wrong. It makes him noble in a self-destructive sort of way. In Harmony, he finds a soul mate, if not a traditional romantic partner, which is just as well. Traditional romance has never worked out for him, nor has family relations with his deli-owner brother (Danny DeVito), who has a soft spot in his heart for the famous brother, and his sister-in-law (Patti Lupone), who may not have any soft spots at all for either brother.
This is a meandering film of moments that add up to a portrait. A scene where Jackie is brought to a birthday dinner for Harmony’s father (Harvey Keitel) as the father’s birthday present, is a master class as the two men, one rich and successful, the other anything but, trade the upper hand with the loser in the encounter barely noticing that his advantage has been turned against him. Similar turns are found with a panoply of superb supporting players, including Charles Grodin, Billy Crystal, and Cloris Leachman as a comedy legend who upstages everyone at her Friar’s Club Roast.
De Niro doesn’t miss a beat. From a profane toast as his niece’s lesbian wedding that turns into a heart-tugging tribute to true love, to the deliciously idiosyncratic rendition of “Makin’ Whoopee” at a retirement home that also goes viral, he has the timing of a master comedian, and the soul of a man who has made peace with himself without quite overcoming the emotional hurts that the years have inflicted. Director Taylor Hackford lets the camera run, and is not afraid of letting a few reflective moments play out to let us savor their import.
The montage of hot young comics performing at New York City’s fabled Comedy Cellar, a diverse group taking on everything from cops on horseback to questioning NYC’s place as the greatest city on the planet serves not just as a comedy showcase, but a subtle commentary on the perceptions of the media gatekeepers on what audiences want. In telling counterpoint, when Jackie is called out from the stage by a performer, the verbal sparring is viciously funny, and undeniably a mark of respect from one comic to another. With the audience lapping it up. Jackie, like De Niro, electrifies a room. And the result electrifies the screen. I wish THE COMEDIAN were more focused, but four credited writers may have fuzzied the product. As it ponders issues of ageism and talent in the age of social media and viral videos, it may never gel, but it does resound.