Review: The Comedian (AFI FEST 2016)

The Comedian (AFI FEST 2016)
4 10

PLOT: An insult comic, who at one time became a popular sitcom star, tries desperately to escape his squeaky clean television image.

REVIEW: AFI Film Festival has returned to Los Angeles, and once again we at JoBlo are checking out some of this year’s presentations. The first film I had the opportunity to take on was the Robert De Niro dark comedy THE COMEDIAN. Considering it was premiering at the festival, I was hoping that it would be a return to form, closer to some of the fantastic earlier work in his career. While his performance is mostly solid as an insult comic who is trying to live down a lame sitcom that made him famous, the character is kind of a infuriating. This may be about a stand-up comedian, yet there is very little to laugh at. The crude jokes feel a bit antiquated and not very funny, and it is hard to care about a character that really is just a big old selfish lout of a man.

Robert De Niro is Jackie, a one-time sitcom star who always preferred raunchy comedy instead of family friendly material. Unfortunately for him, his fans have no interest in seeing the crude and rude humor, they just want to see the goofy star of a dumb sitcom whenever he plays at a club. His manager Miller - played by Edie Falco - is getting frustrated with him because he can’t hold a gig without screwing it up. After he is charged with assaulting a heckler and being an ass in court, he faces a short prison sentence, as well as community service. While there, he meets a charming, if slightly messed up, woman named Harmony (Leslie Mann). The two begin a complicated relationship, one that could be the change Jackie needs to get his life in order.

That last paragraph sounds a whole lot more inspiring than what the movie actually delivers. In fact, it really failed to make me feel much of anything for Jackie at all. As a person he is kind of horrible, and he isn’t really a funny comic. It’s not as if De Niro can’t pull it off, it’s just that the dialogue seems forced and possibly a little dated. Most of the jokes he tells failed to really hit, and quite often they felt forced. The film attempts to marry both the humor and the heart of this story, but it cannot deliver either very well. However I did sort of appreciate that they tried to go as dark as they did with the character, but they went so far as to make him just annoying and uninteresting. I didn’t care about Jackie and I didn’t care about his struggles.

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Director Taylor Hackford has done fine work in the past. His latest however, isn’t a film you’ll see for amazing cinematography but it gets the job done well enough, at least visually speaking. That's never the problem here. I’ve mentioned the jokes, but even the dramatic beats didn’t work. Written by Lewis Friedman, Richard LaGravenese, Art Linson and Jeffrey Ross, it is clear that there is knowledge of the world of stand-up comedy. Yet the entire flick feels as out of touch as Jackie is to everybody around him. Had this come out twenty years ago it may have felt a bit more relevant. The dirty jokes are occasionally pretty crude, and I may have laughed a time or two, but they feel uninspired. I did however like when Jackie went after the audience, it gave the routine a little more bite.

Another problem here is the way they approach a modern age. A few times in the film, Jackie acts out and either assaults somebody or gets intensely crude at an inappropriate time. Three of these breakdowns end up going viral online. Look, I get it. They want to relate to the younger audiences, but every single time they talked about Jackie’s bad behavior reaching millions of people on the internet, it just feels like a desperate attempt to make this story relevant. In a way, the entire film hangs on whether the comedian can really connect with today’s audiences. And I didn’t believe for a second that he would.

Aside from De Niro and Falco, you also a few familiar faces in the comedy world. You have Cloris Leachman, Danny DeVito, Hannibal Buress, Brett Butler, Gilbert Gottfried, Jimmie Walker and more. And then there is Leslie Mann. Here she plays yet another flawed character, but unlike Jackie, there is an energy to her. She is a bright spot in this occasionally grim fable. Also joining in the fun is Harvey Keitel as Harmony’s father. Strangely, I found the relationship between those two far more intriguing than Jackie and his up and down career.

THE COMEDIAN isn’t terribly funny and it is oftentimes painfully monotonous. De Niro is fine as a one-time great comedian, yet the script gives him very little to rise above. Jackie is never very interesting, in fact the character is pretty damn frustrating. Thankfully, there is a glimmer of light courtesy of Leslie Mann. The actress plays off of De Niro nicely, and it almost works whenever they are together. Ultimately though, this is a film that feels old-fashioned to a fault. I’m not really sure whether it was De Niro’s delivery or the jokes themselves, but the humor is inconsistent. Clearly Mr. De Niro is charismatic and has the chops, but somehow it doesn't help here. This may be worth watching on Netflix, but I’d be hard pressed to recommend seeking a laugh from this comedian.

Source: JoBlo.com

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