'The Comedian': Film Review | AFI Fest 2016

The Comedian - Still 2- H 2016
Courtesy of Alison Cohen Rosa/Sony Pictures Classics
Fine acting can't quite redeem a sleazy central character.

Robert De Niro stars as a bitter stand-up comic in this character study with a strong supporting cast.

The Comedian, which had its world premiere at AFI Fest and will be released by Sony Classics later this year, must be the first post-election movie to feature a joke about Donald Trump (a pretty good one). Beyond this, however, the movie is a somewhat uncomfortable reflection of the Age of Trump, which may hurt its box-office chances in the long run. But more about that in a moment.

Robert De Niro and producer Art Linson had wanted to make a movie about an insult comedian for the last several years, and apparently De Niro spent time hanging around comedy clubs to master the cadences of a bitter comic who’s been on a career downswing, partly because of his own frustrations and resentments. It should come as no surprise to say that De Niro plays the part superbly. After all, he started out in comic roles like Brian De Palma’s Hi, Mom! It took him a few decades to get back to his roots, with such hit films as Analyze This and Meet the Parents. The character he plays here has much darker edges, but you have to believe first and foremost that Jackie Burke has the timing and the comic chops to have a long career in stand-up comedy, and De Niro makes that easy to accept.

The film opens with a nifty scene at a comedy club in which a heckler in the audience plans to use his confrontation with Jackie as part of his own web podcast. But Jackie’s anger upends the interloper’s plans and gets the comedian arrested for assault. In court he is offered probation if he apologizes to the heckler, but he can’t bring himself to do it and is carted off to a month in prison. What’s compelling about these opening scenes is that they are evenhanded. We feel uneasy about Jackie’s rage, but we also loathe his victim and certainly can understand what made him explode.

After Jackie gets out of prison, he is required to do community service at a soup kitchen, where he meets another worker named Harmony (Leslie Mann), who is atoning for her own angry outbursts. Much of the rest of the film chronicles Jackie’s struggles to find his professional and financial footing while he also wrestles with family and a budding relationship with Harmony.

The acting in the film is outstanding down to some of the smallest parts, and here director Taylor Hackford (who hasn’t had a major hit in several years) deserves considerable credit for guiding these performers. The age-inappropriate relationship between Jackie and Harmony does have its slightly queasy side, but at least the film acknowledges this, and Mann burrows deeply into the character to reveal the anger and hurt that make her cautiously susceptible to Jackie’s rough charms.

Danny DeVito gives one of his best performances as Jackie’s brother, and as his wife, Patti LuPone practically steals the movie with almost no dialogue. Her intense glares deserve a special Oscar. (It does seem a bit strange that these Jewish family members are played by notably non-Jewish actors.) Edie Falco as Jackie’s manager and Cloris Leachman as a very aged comedienne (“a barely living legend,” as Jackie dubs her character) shine as well. De Niro also has several scenes with some of his former co-stars, including Harvey Keitel and Charles Grodin, and they play together with easy mastery. Another one-time co-star, Billy Crystal, turns up for an unexpected but amusing cameo. And the real comedians who appear in the comedy club scenes also add edge and authenticity to the movie. The script by four writers — Linson, Jeff Ross, Richard LaGravenese and Lewis Friedman — captures the milieu expertly, along with the language of abrasive insult.

But shortly after the halfway point in the movie, some of the sharp observation begins to slip away and a sour tone emerges. Jackie visits a retirement home in Florida and mocks the ailing seniors with a song about their bowel problems that quickly goes viral on YouTube. This leads to Jackie being hired to host a sleazy reality TV show whose opening episode subjects a semi-naked man to be covered with a crateload of crawfish while Jackie baits the audience and hurls insults at the desperate contestant. Does this remind you of the ascension of another reality TV host who built his career on bullying and insult, to the delight of the media?

Maybe this would have played a little differently before the election, but there’s an added level of discomfort that we feel watching the character now. Perhaps the film could be defended as attempting an acerbic commentary on the world that bred Trump and led to his triumph. But the film turns sentimental in the final scenes in suggesting that Jackie is really a good person underneath it all, with a tender heart that he’s hidden from view. The film’s confusions turn it into a reflection of our topsy-turvy times that ends up feeling a lot more melancholy than any of the talented actors and filmmakers might have anticipated.

Venue: AFI Fest (Special Screenings)
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Production companies: Cinelou Films, Linson Entertainment, Anvil Films
Cast: Robert De Niro, Leslie Mann, Harvey Keitel, Edie Falco, Danny DeVito, Patti LuPone, Charles Grodin, Cloris Leachman
Director: Taylor Hackford
Screenwriters: Art Linson, Jeff Ross, Richard LaGravenese, Lewis Friedman
Story by: Art Linson
Producers: Mark Canton, Courtney Solomon, Taylor Hackford, Art Linson, John Linson
Executive producers: Scott Karol, Wayne Marc Godfrey, Robert Jones, Iain Abraham, Dennis Pelino, Fredy Bush, Mark Axelowitz, Lawrence Smith, Peter Sobiloff
Director of photography: Oliver Stapleton
Production designer: Kristi Zea
Costume designer: Aude Bronson-Howard
Editor: Mark Warner
Music: Terence Blanchard

Rated R, 118 minutes