The Comedian

I love stand-up comedians. Some of my best friends are stand-up comedians. I also love movies, and so…I’m always hoping movies that deal with stand-up comedy will be good. The movie Punchline (Tom Hanks, Sally Field) came out when I was in college, and I hated almost every second of it. Every comedian I’ve talked to disliked it also.

Stand-up comedian Mike Birbiglia has written two movies, Sleepwalk with Me and Don’t Think Twice (from last year), that were solid, entertaining depictions of the craft.

I was pleasantly surprised that Judd Apatow and Adam Sandler did a terrific film dealing with the world of stand-up (the criminally underrated Funny People). So I had hope that Apatow’s wife, and one of the stars of Funny People (Leslie Mann), would bring that good mojo to The Comedian.

This has been a passion project for Robert De Niro for years (as well as producer and co-writer Art Linson). De Niro sort of played a comedian before (The King of Comedy).

There might not be a better cast assembled for a film this year. Yet it reminded me of a long joke you’re listening to somebody tell at a dinner party. You’re enjoying the telling of it. The facial expressions, hand gestures, and the fact that it’s keeping the conversation going. Then the punchline comes and you’re wondering why that person felt the need to make us sit there and listen to something with such a weak payoff. That’s a lot like this movie, since the first half is interesting, and the second half a mess.

The whole thing was directed by Taylor Hackford. Perhaps I’ll be the only one that notices his name starts with “hack” — the most insulting word a comedian can call a fellow comedian.

He’s done his share of turkeys the last few years (Parker, Love Ranch). But he also gave us the Oscar nominated Ray, the underrated Everybody’s All American (which came out the same year as Punchline in 1988). He directed one of the best film versions of a Stephen King story (Dolores Claiborne), and one of my all-time favorite movies — An Officer and a Gentleman. Yet just as De Niro is playing a comedian that is more recognized for a popular sitcom, this isn’t the movie Hackford will be remembered for.

Jackie Burke (De Niro) reminded me of Jackie Mason, with material Jackie Martling would do. His stand-up material just wasn’t very strong. That’s a shame, considering one of the four screenwriters is the brilliant stand-up Jeff Ross. One of the film’s many flaws is the fact that people always shout out for him to do a catchphrase from his TV show. Now, I’ve seen Jimmy Walker do stand-up, and nobody yells out “Dyno-mite!” I’ve seen Bob Saget do stand-up, and nobody yells stuff out about Full House. I’ve seen a handful of other TV stars doing standup, and it just doesn’t happen. Why do movies always use this cliche? [side note: Jimmy Walker, as well as many other comedians, play themselves in this]

Jackie is playing a series of small comedy clubs and he’s constantly giving his wonderful agent (Eddie Falco) grief. When one of these gigs leads to Jackie punching a heckler with a video camera, it goes viral. That’s good for his career, but not so good for his criminal record. He gets 30 days in jail and 100 hours of community service. That’s where we get the meet-cute with Harmony (Leslie Mann). It’s never really that cute, but more creepy, since he’s twice her age. At least the movie delves into that. What the movie should’ve done was made Harmony a bit more quirky and interesting. She just comes off as a screw-up with daddy issues. At least they had decent chemistry together.

We get to meet Jackie’s brother, understated by Danny Devito. His wife, played by Patti LuPone, has some terrific facial expressions. Their interactions are all interesting, especially a scene where DeVito is shouting at De Niro merely for the wife’s benefit. The scene that doesn’t work is a lesbian wedding. It’s not the least bit believable that Jackie would get up and roast his niece the way he did. We understand he’s a “shock comic” that works vulgar, but his material in that moment could’ve been funnier, and still had his edge and wit. It’s also not believable that Mann and LuPone’s characters would then get into a shouting match that resulted in a fight. It’s almost like we’re watching a bad sitcom — something Jackie was always trying to get away from.

When Jackie and Harmony go on a date to meet her father (played by Harvey Keitel,  De Niro’s co-star from Mean Streets and Taxi Driver), it’s not the least bit believable that he would insist, over and over, that he say his catchphrase from the sitcom. His character is a former mobster now running some senior citizen homes, and he wants his daughter to move to Florida and work in the family business (senior homes, not the mob). Of course, this will lead to one of the more unfunny scenes (in a movie that had more than it should’ve), in which the lyrics to “Makin’ Whoopee” are changed to “Makin’ Doodie.” Ah, nothing like jokes about old people going to the bathroom.

Aside from the terrific cast already mentioned, it’s great to see comedians like Nick Di Paolo, Richard Belzer, Gilbert Gottfried, Jim Norton, Hannibal Buress (the man who took Cosby down), and a wasted cameo by Billy Crystal. His scene in the elevator reminded me of how much fun those two were in Analyze This, and how bad his attempt at the life of an older comedian — Mr. Saturday Night — was.

Speaking of older comedians, two older actors have fun roles. Charles Grodin (who is 81) plays the head of the Friars Club, who is known to steal jokes; and Cloris Leachman (90-years-old), as an older comedian being roasted. [side note: De Niro and Grodin were in one of the best comedies ever made — Midnight Run]

A few of the things the movie did could’ve been great plot devices. For example, the viral videos. Yet now we’ve seen that done in better films (Chef).

The ending could’ve been funny if written properly (and it felt too much like Little Miss Sunshine).

Now, Jackie Burke’s character is fleshed out nicely. It’s nice that he’s not a caricature. It’s just a shame that the stand-up material and the romance, were both unconvincing.

The narrative was meandering, and it was an opportunity for an interesting character study.

There’s a great jazzy score by Terence Blanchard, and there’s also a number of scenes that were interesting. It just could’ve been so much better. It also pains me to say — Bad Grandpa actually had more laughs.

2 stars out of 5.