They say misery loves company, but if the unseemly characters in Taylor Hackford’s latest feature are any indication, it also breeds comedy.
It’s a question often posed by stand-up comics and genre actors alike; is the art of being funny rooted in the slums of depression? At the center of The Comedian, Robert De Niro puts the theory to the test as the curmudgeonly Jackie Burke, a washed-up sitcom-star-turned-insult-comic in pursuit of a career—and an identity—free from the constraints of a stifling past.
Fresh from prison after assaulting a wily heckler, we meet Jackie at the onset of his golden years, fraught with frayed relationships and a tarnished image; his crude behavior found an audience at the peak of his career some 30 years ago, but no one’s laughing at the new material. They want what they know—a catchphrase, a whiff of former glory—but, if he’s going to bumble away into obscurity, it’s not going to be on their terms.
Thematic comparisons to Martin Scorsese’s 1983 classic The King of Comedy—also starring De Niro—are inevitable, though Jackie’s a professional inverse of Rupert Pupkin, flickering out at the tail end of a forgotten career. He’s grumpy and glum, but there’s an undeniable pang for attention that pushes him along. He’s got a soft spot, too; as a reforming criminal, he works holidays at a food bank, serving slabs of meat (and free routines) to homeless patrons—not because they asked for it, they’re just the only people still willing to listen.
It’s here Jackie meets Harmony (Leslie Mann), a sullen fortysomething grappling with the ghosts of infidelity, and woos her with slovenly charm. Defined by inescapable pasts, the pair’s drifting souls connect; his reputation as a fading star precedes him, while her easily baited temper (she was sentenced to community service after hurling a lamp at her ex-lover’s mistress) looms overhead.
The Comedian explores the dynamics of such unorthodox attraction with its heart in the right place, but for all of its performative charm, it still suffers the untimely misfortune of following an old, white man grousing about the state of affairs as the world diversifies around him. Sure, all perspectives are valuable, and all characters have merits if they’re handled properly, but The Comedian doesn’t do anything with the faces it draws or the courses it paves (but never travels). In the end, Jackie’s still the same prickly pear he was at the beginning, none the wiser (just a little older) as the credits roll.
Though it’s cut from the same cloth as films about stubborn, struggling artists like Don’t Think Twice or Obvious Child, The Comedian doesn’t know how to synthesize the plight of Jackie’s commitment to his craft with narrative agency and emotional girth. Its script, written by four people, lays an inspired foundation, but shies away from cutting below the surface, with each hand pulling the same story in different directions.
As Jackie’s weary publicist, Miller (Edie Falco), incessantly reminds him, “Being funny isn’t enough anymore,” though sentiment can’t stop him. De Niro’s spirited work—his best leading turn in years—convinces us that a character can be made in front of our very eyes, even if there’s not much for him to work with on the page. Because of him, we believe Jackie accepts Miller’s assessment, but doesn’t subscribe to it, and that’s a beautiful stamp on a film that is, despite its shortcomings, filled with subtle poignancy, most notable in scenes of Jackie’s performances.
The camera scans faces in the crowd—some laugh, some roll their eyes, and therein lies The Comedian’s clearest message: whether we’re acting a fool or pouring our guts out on the street, someone sees us, and there’s humor to be found in the most unexpected places, no matter how much we resist their gaze. If nothing else, The Comedian gets that. As dreary as life may seem, sometimes it’s worth cracking a smile. Jackie’s no longer the king, but we get the sense he’ll have a hell of a time being a beaming schmuck for the rest of his life. B