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In Taylor Hackford’s The Comedian, no one ages with dignity. Here’s a visual: A once-revered insult comic is doing some stand-up in a Florida old folks home for reasons too tedious to explain. After some blue banter, he turns his act even more juvenile and invites his audience to sing along to his altered version of the standard “Makin’ Whoopee.” Improbably, most of them oblige and help him belt out his parody, which is about constipation. And at its climax, one elderly man cheerfully cries out, “Poopy!” And scene.
Worse? Robert De Niro is the comic.
The Comedian was reportedly a passion project for De Niro eight years in the making. The reason, at least based on the results, is elusive. It’s also hard to imagine that Sean Penn was once attached to direct this trainwreck, which was cobbled together by four scripters and helmed by someone who, while respectable, hasn’t had a hit since 2004’s Ray. (And let’s be honest: That was Jamie Foxx’s show.)
De Niro plays Jackie Burke, a comedian long past his glory days who’s now mostly remembered as Eddie, a PG-character he played on a sitcom. Everyone who recognizes Jackie wants him to say Eddie’s signature line, while all Jackie wants is to get back onstage. He doesn’t handle the continuous requests to “Do Eddie!” very nicely. In fact, he gets into an altercation with an obnoxious audience member at the beginning of the film, which leads to jail time and community service.
It’s while working in a soup kitchen that he meets Harmony (Leslie Mann), with whom he begins a lonelyhearts friendship. She, like so many others, keeps telling Jackie how great he is, while all other signs—most notably, his act—point to the contrary.
The Comedian’s most egregious fault isn’t that it’s not terribly funny—it does have a few entertaining moments, and De Niro fully inhabits his Andrew Dice Clay-ian character. (When asked to participate in a roast for a comedian played by Cloris Leachman, he agrees, adding, “She’s a barely living legend.”) What instead sinks the film is its complete aimlessness. It meanders between disjointed scenes, most of which serve no purpose other than to show Jackie getting irritated. Danny De Vito and Harvey Keitel are given largely throwaway roles as Jackie’s brother and Harmony’s father, respectively, though Jackie does unleash a terrific comeback to Keitel’s character when he repeatedly calls him “Eddie.”
In the third act, the film really falls apart with two incredible downers, officially rendering the entire project atonal. Why De Niro was so devoted to making The Comedian may be a mystery, but its worthiness as anything but a basic-cable sit is not.
The Comedian opens Friday at the Angelika Film Center and Landmark’s Atlantic Plumbing Cinema.