The Comedian

Robert De Niro plays a mean-spirited insult comic trying to get back on top in "ThSony Pictures Classics

‘The Comedian’
Taylor Hackford
Stars: Robert De Niro, Leslie Mann
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

What would Martin Scorsese have made of “The Comedian”? It isn’t mere idle speculation: He was, many years ago, in talks to direct it. Instead this character study, trailing a stubborn, floundering former sitcom star and present-day has-been stand-up (Robert De Niro), wound up in the hands of Taylor Hackford. It’s a doozy of a step-down: Hackford is a filmmaker with no discernible voice — a workhorse with little consistency, who can helm the grounded “An Officer and a Gentlemen” and the OTT “The Devil’s Advocate.” Alas, “The Comedian” is such a combustible project that it requires a steady hand. Instead it’s the opposite of a project that got better over a long gestation; it’s what happens when there are (not to get that song back in your head) too many cooks.

The end result is downright bizarre — a tonal and structural shambles, a patchwork of good ideas and bad. In the plus category, there’s a flawed antihero who’s potentially as rich as fellow sitcom roadkill BoJack Horseman himself. When we catch up with DeNiro’s Jackie, his star has long waned, and he can barely get gigs in podunk Long Island opposite Jimmie Walker (as himself). He wants to get back in the limelight, but he’s perhaps too bitter. That’s not entirely a bad thing: His rage and intransigence has destroyed his career, but it makes for killer sets. Or so we’re told; this is one of those movies where everyone keeps telling our hero how great he or she is, abetted by constant cutaways to cackling audience members.

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In truth, he’s merely not bad — energetically played by De Niro, thoughfar too reliant on easy anti-PC slams about gender and ethnicity and sexual orientation. Still, you get the sense that he’s not merely a Cro-Magnon dickhead, using takedowns to Make America Crappy Again. A key scene has him reluctantly making a speech at his lesbian niece’s wedding. No one is spared, but no face — save for his arch-nemesis of a sister-in-law (Patti Lu Pone) — is dry. Jackie isn’t trying to enrage people or stick it to progressives; he’s giving them what they want, playing to their self-deprecation and delight in decimated social niceties. He’s no self-loathing scoundrel; if anything he’s too proud.

Such clarity, though, is few and far between. Presumably “The Comedian” began as a ’70s throwback than mutated to fit in better with today’s ad-lib comedy environs. Hackford leans too much on the latter, making it more comedy than drama. Bright and blandly shot, even when stuck in dumpy New York, it features untold scenes of Jackie telling it like it is, sticking it to social and vocational gatekeepers. It can get so rah-rah that you have expect Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” to thunder onto the soundtrack, while scenes of him slaying on stage or in nursing homes start to feel gratuitous. We get it, the paid extras think Jackie’s funny.

Only the B Plot, detailing Jackie’s not-quite-romance with the volatile woman (Leslie Mann) he meets while doing community service (long story), have the right kind of messy. Finally getting a chance to play outside the Apatow or Apatow-lite universe, Mann takes a sketchily-written character, one who keeps doing whatever the plot demands of her, and makes her thrillingly unpredictable. She can be nice and giggly, but she can also turn on a dime and trade full-bodied eff-yous at strangers. Watching “The Comedian” is maybe more frustrating than catching a comic bomb; the bits that strike gold only make the off stretches that much more vexing. Rupert Pupkin, De Niro's stand-up from "The King of Comedy," may have had weaker material, but there's no contest over who got the better film.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
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