De Niro fails to land a punch line in The Comedian 

Tough Crowd

click to enlarge De Niro punches a heckler in the less-than-funny The Comedian

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

De Niro punches a heckler in the less-than-funny The Comedian

On paper, The Comedian looks promising. It stars Robert De Niro, Edie Falco, Danny DeVito, Leslie Mann, and Harvey Keitel — solid cast. Notable comedians from past and present appear in cameos, including Billy Crystal and Jim Norton. It was produced and directed by Taylor Hackford (Ray), an experienced auteur who knows how to connect with audiences. Indeed, everything about this indicates it could be something special.

And then you watch the movie. The jokes are hit and miss, the story is scattered and contrived, and the protagonist is his own worst enemy. It's not terrible, but the lack of satisfaction when it's over is alarming.

The pigheaded protagonist is Jackie Burke (De Niro), an aged stand-up comic who once had a hit TV show and now spits insults at audience members like he's Don Rickles. In the opening moments, he whines to his agent (Falco) about performing at a low-paying "Legends Night" alongside Jimmie Walker and Brett Butler. Ungrateful and arrogant, he seems.

When a heckler (Happy Anderson) gets under his skin, Jackie proceeds to ram the microphone into the heckler's nose. Art Linson and Richard LaGravenese wrote the dialogue, while comedians Lewis Friedman and Jeff Ross wrote the comedy routines; one speculates that punching out a heckler is a fantasy come true for stand-up comedians everywhere.

Part of Jackie's punishment for the heckler's nose is community service in a soup kitchen, which is where he meets Harmony (Mann). An oddly symbiotic friendship ensues, leading to her agreeing to join him at his brother Jimmy's (DeVito) daughter's (Lucy DeVito) lesbian wedding, and him agreeing to have dinner with her domineering father (Keitel). This leads to some funny moments, but also some unexpected plot twists that take the story in questionable directions.

The Comedian needs to be more consistently funny in order for us to like Jackie. For example, it's a clever idea to have Jackie test out new material on the homeless people he's serving at a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving. But as he makes dirty jokes about turkey and the early settlers, he fails to connect. Part of this could be De Niro's delivery, which at times struggles to hit punch lines. Another part could be that Jackie is screaming F-bombs inside a church, and it all just seems wrong. Context and delivery are essential parts of comedy, and neither is what it needs to be here.

Also telling: All of the other comedians who appear and tell jokes — and there are many — are funnier than Jackie, and yet Jackie is supposed to be a comedy legend. Sure, part of the premise is that Jackie is washed up and not as funny as he used to be, but he needs to land more jokes to get us to believe he was ever funny.

It's always tricky to balance serious drama with humor, because when you're not a full-out comedy you have fewer opportunities to connect with jokes, which makes it all the more important that the jokes hit. When they don't hit, you get The Comedian.

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