Robert De Niro, the star of “The Comedian,” was for many years identified primarily as an actor of searing, spooky seriousness – think Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” or “Raging Bull.” But he began his career with spoofy black comedies like Brian De Palma’s “Hi, Mom!” and, even in those celebrated Scorsese films, which also include “Mean Streets” and “Goodfellas,” his scary-funny riffs displayed a kind of comedy much closer to edgy, improvisational humor than traditional Hollywood yocks.
When De Niro lost his edge years ago and became a far more conventional actor, it was doubly disappointing that he chose to make a mini-career out of goofballing his old intensity in such films as “Analyze This,” “Analyze That,” and the “Meet the Fockers” series. Yes, he was funny in those films, in the way that Marlon Brando was funny lampooning Vito Corleone when he made “The Freshman,” but it was nevertheless discomfiting that De Niro chose to cash in on his heatedness by repeatedly trashing it.
In the highly uneven “The Comedian,” directed by Taylor Hackford and written by Art Linson, Jeffrey Ross, Richard LaGravenese, and Lewis Friedman, De Niro is attempting, with some success, to merge his old scary-funny persona. As Jackie Burke, he is playing a washed-up comic whose sole hit, an “All in the Family”-style sitcom, ended decades ago.
Audiences still recognize him and cheer him on, even though his assaultive, obscenity-laced stand-up routines are now mostly relegated to thinly attended basement comedy clubs. What keeps him going? It’s not the money, exactly, since there’s precious little of that to be had. What he still craves, though he won’t admit it, is the audience’s acceptance. He insults them to test their affection.
A run-in with an unruly audience member lands him a monthlong prison sentence for assault, followed by mandatory community service in a soup kitchen, where he meets Harmony (a terrific Leslie Mann), who is also doing community time there. (Her bullying father is well played by Harvey Keitel, De Niro’s costar in “Mean Streets” 44 years ago.) She’s as caustic as he is, but livelier and sunnier. Together they form an unlikely alliance that’s mostly, but not altogether, platonic.
De Niro isn’t playing Jackie for easy laughs. There’s a hard-bitten core to his grumblings. In movies like “Wag the Dog” and the almost unseen “What Just Happened,” De Niro demonstrated that, as a mature actor, he could still mainline that subversive comic essence that graced his early work. Some of that essence comes through in “The Comedian” as well, although the movie itself isn’t up to his performance and ultimately drags it down.
One problem with the film is that Jackie’s routines – including a nasty monologue delivered at his lesbian niece’s wedding (her parents are played broadly by Danny DeVito and Patti LuPone) and another at an old-age home in Florida – are clearly meant to be funnier and sharper than they are. What is intended as scalding truth-telling comes across more like slamming. De Niro captures Jackie’s volatile mixture of pride and self-hatred, and the rhythm of his comic riffs are expertly delivered, but the material itself doesn’t support the effort.
Hackford trots out a series of familiar, in some cases faded, faces from the past, including Charles Grodin, Jimmie Walker, Richard Belzer, Cloris Leachman, and Billy Crystal, but the effect is disheartening, like being trapped inside a mediocre Friars Club Roast.
If nothing else, I hope that “The Comedian” signals an attempt by De Niro to once again take acting seriously. Without much supporting evidence, he’s still routinely called our greatest living actor. There’s still time to make good on that. Grade: C+ (Rated R for crude sexual references and language throughout.)