It’s been 34 years since “The King of Comedy,” and Robert De Niro still can’t tell a joke.
Oh, he can be funny, so long as he isn’t making movies like “Dirty Grandpa.” But watching De Niro on stage attempting stand-up is like watching a giraffe on roller skates. Neither seems quite sure how they ended up there, and you just want to see them safely back on solid ground.
In “The Comedian,” De Niro portrays Jackie Burke, the star of the decades-old sitcom “Eddie’s Home.” Unlike De Niro’s “King of Comedy” hack Rupert Pupkin, Jackie is supposed to be a comedy legend, even though he’s seen better days. People keep referring to him by his character’s name and asking him to say his TV catchphrase, “Arleeeeeeeen!”
During a TV sitcom nostalgia night at a comedy club in Hicksville, New York, alongside Jimmie Walker and “Grace Under Fire’s” Brett Butler, Jackie roughs up a heckler. Sentenced to 100 hours of community service, Jackie refuses to apologize to his victim, launches into his insult comedy act in court and is given 30 days in jail for contempt.
Once he’s released, Jackie does his mandated time at a homeless shelter and strikes up a rapport with another convicted assailant (Leslie Mann).
“What’s your name?” Jackie asks.
“Harmony Schiltz? Were your parents in a Nazi barbershop quartet?”
I’ve always enjoyed Mann, but I never really appreciated just how talented she is until she laughed uproariously — again and again — at Jackie’s shtick. That’s Streep-level talent.
With its jazz score, frequent trips to the Comedy Cellar and bizarre turns of events, it’s as though the filmmakers — director Taylor Hackford (“Ray”) and writers Art Linson, comic Jeffrey Ross, Richard LaGravenese (“Unbroken”) and Lewis Friedman (“From Dust to Dreams: Opening Night at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts”) — attempted to make an extended episode of FX’s “Louie” after only hearing people describe the brilliant comedy, “Drunk History”-style.
“The Comedian” is loaded with actual comics, including Richard Belzer, Gilbert Gottfried, Hannibal Buress and frequent “Louie” guests Nick Di Paolo and Jim Norton, the latter of whom is listed as a “comedy consultant.”
And the cast is littered with acting talent as well. Edie Falco portrays Jackie’s much-maligned manager. Danny DeVito costars as his brother with Patti LuPone playing Jackie’s angry sister-in-law. Harvey Keitel appears as Harmony’s overprotective father. Charles Grodin turns up as Jackie’s nemesis at the Friars Club, while Cloris Leachman gives as good as she gets as the subject of a roast.
But what should have been fertile ground for a movie — what it’s like when you’re a star famous for something that happened decades ago — contains less insight on the subject in two hours than any single episode of Netflix’s “Bojack Horseman,” a cartoon about a talking, sweater-wearing horse.
Part of the problem is that Jackie is made out to be a stand-up legend. It’s the same woes that plagued Aaron Sorkin’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” When your characters are supposed to be comedy geniuses, the material they deliver had better be stellar. It isn’t in either case.
Instead of being funny, Jackie’s crass and crude, going so far as to launch into vulgar, homophobic bits at his niece’s lesbian wedding. There’s simply no reason to root for the guy.
At one point, during an impromptu performance at the senior citizens home owned by Harmony’s father, Jackie launches into a scatological take on the song “Makin’ Whoopee” that he calls “Makin’ Poopy.”
The embarrassing bit is as apt a description as possible of the work of everyone involved in creating “The Comedian.”