‘The Comedian’ has one-ill-conceived set piece after another

Robert De Niro and Leslie Mann in “The Comedian.” (IMDB Images)

With “The Comedian” arriving in theaters, it’s safe to say I now have only nine spaces left on my list of the 10 worst movies of 2017.

What’s more painful than watching a comedian bomb onstage in a live performance? Watching one of the greatest actors of all time bomb playing a comedian who is shockingly unfunny onstage, and an offensive boor offstage.

Some 35 years after Robert De Niro delivered one of his most memorable and most admirably unsettling performances as the deranged wannabe comedian/late-night host Rupert Pupkin in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy,” De Niro plays a bitter, misanthropic, thoroughly unlikable stand-up comic named Jackie Burke in “The Comedian.”

Pupkin was crazier. Burke is infinitely less interesting.

At times over the last 20 years, the great De Niro has clearly phoned in his performances. Not here. He pours himself into the role of Jackie, and every once in a while, a spark of brilliance flies off the screen, despite the flat material.

Mostly, though, I was embarrassed for De Niro, and for the rest of the exceptionally talented supporting cast, as they flounder about in one ill-conceived set piece after another, e.g., an excruciatingly unfunny sequence in which Jackie performs at a retirement home and transforms the lyrics of “Making Whoopee” into “Making Poopie” — because what’s funnier than a song about the elderly having trouble with their bowel movements?


Directed by the good-to-excellent veteran Taylor Hackford (“An Officer and a Gentleman,” “Against All Odds,” “Ray”), with a screenplay credited in part to Jeffrey Ross, arguably THE premiere takedown/roast comedy writer-performer of our times, “The Comedian” pulls no punches when Jackie takes the stage and traffics in just about every taboo imaginable.

I have no issue with that, especially in these politically correct times. Problem is, the jokes just aren’t that funny, and De Niro doesn’t help matters with his self-consciously mannered delivery. You can cut to laughing audience members, laughing celebrities, laughing comics in the audience, et al., all you want, but it doesn’t make the material any funnier.

So here’s the deal. De Niro’s Jackie Burke was the star of “Eddie’s Home,” a dreadful but popular sitcom from the 1980s. Now in his late 60s, Jackie finds himself working the comedy club circuit and barely scraping by; verbally abusing his longtime and loyal manager (Edie Falco); regularly borrowing money from his younger brother (Danny DeVito); and performing community service after serving time for attacking a heckler.

Leslie Mann is the best thing in this movie, playing an insecure and screwed-up but altogether charming woman named Harmony, who shares a court-ordered community service gig with Jackie and starts dating him because the script says they start dating. There’s absolutely nothing believable about the Jackie-Harmony “romance,” but Mann does a wonderful job of TRYING to make us believe it.

Harvey Keitel plays Harmony’s gangster father, Mac. The first meeting between Mac and Jackie takes place at Sparks, the New York steakhouse where Gambino crime boss Paul Castellano and his underboss Thomas Bilotti were hit in 1985.

And it goes nowhere.

Later, there’s a golden opportunity for De Niro and Keitel to echo the scene in “Taxi Driver” when Keitel’s pimp tells De Niro’s Travis Bickle to, um, go away — and the opportunity is wasted. Come on!

Cameos by Billy Crystal, Charles Grodin, Hannibal Buress and other familiar faces do nothing to elevate the proceedings. Director Hackford goes for a Woody Allen vibe with the soundtrack and the establishing shots and the editing rhythms, but it feels like a pale imitation of something authentic.

Much like the “comedy” of Jackie Burke.

Rating: One Star out of Four

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