If for nothing else, we should thank director Taylor Hackford for casting Robert De Niro and Danny DeVito as brothers in his new movie The Comedian. Why hasn’t somebody thought of it before? And Hackford reunites De Niro and Harvey Keitel—it’s been decades since Mean Streets. One idea is so inspired, the other so long overdue, that it’s a pity the movie doesn’t give them all better things to do.
De Niro plays Jackie Burke, an aging insult comic and a sitcom star 30 years ago, now reduced to low-rent nostalgia gigs for small audiences who only want to hear the catchphrases from his old show. At a gig, Jackie uses his microphone to break a heckler’s nose; then, instead of apologizing in court, he spins off on a foul-mouthed insult riff. (Jackie’s whole career is foul-mouthed.) He gets 30 days in jail and 100 hours of community service, serving the homeless in a downtown mission.
There he meets Harmony Schultz (Leslie Mann), who has similar anger issues; she’s doing community service for assaulting an ex. Somehow their sharp edges mesh; they like each other. He takes her to his gay niece’s wedding, enraging his sister-in-law (Patti LuPone) and secretly titillating his brother Jimmy (DeVito) with his raunchy toast to the brides. Harmony takes him to dinner with her father Mac (Keitel), a fan of that long-ago sitcom who immediately detests Jackie in person. The feeling is mutual, and when Mac, talking about his daughter, asks “What are your intentions here?” Jackie can’t resist: “To fuck her brains out. After that, we’ll see.”
The Comedian is a movie of anecdotes, episodes and I-can’t-believe-he-said-that moments. For all its nice touches—the easy, cheerful chemistry between De Niro and Mann, say, and the wisps of sibling affection that tease us from between De Niro and DeVito’s lines—the movie feels only half-cooked, as if script ideas trotted out and jotted down in story conferences got misplaced on the way to the keyboard and were never developed.
Four writers get credit (Art Linson, Jeff Ross, Richard LaGravanese and Lewis Friedman) and the script feels as if they spent more time rewriting each other than working together—in every sense, they seem not to have been on the same page.
And with all those fingers in the pie, no one wrote anything really funny for Jackie to say. We have to take Jackie’s lightning wit on faith, it’s not in anything he says. De Niro has great timing, but it’s not comic timing; he doesn’t find the rhythms of someone who’s as naturally funny as everyone says Jackie is.
Hackford has a good but underused cast—Charles Grodin, Cloris Leachman and Lois Smith pop in now and then, and Edie Falco strides through as Jackie’s manager, a Greek chorus to his simmering rage—and he catches the seedy atmosphere. But The Comedian is too much like Jackie himself: It keeps too much to itself, and it overstays its welcome.