Watch Steve's supplemental video review at the bottom of the article
Last week, I gave A Dog's Purpose a fairly poor review, and just yesterday, I blasted The Space Between Us for squandering a terrific premise into a saccharine, bargain-bin romance novel of a film. Today, however, I give The Comedian a very positive review, for it almost acts as the antithesis of both of those films and their superficial, calculated formulas to give the audience the pathos they should feel without the need of blatant signalling.
The Comedian has emotional subtext, and just when you think it's going to rise from the shadows and overtake such a foul-mouthed, brazenly ribald picture, it zigs in the opposite direction. It paints the characters at its center with more complex strokes, plus care and attention, that turn a potentially pedestrian screenplay into one that's quite successful. The bold move recognizes that the film is first and foremost a comedy and that the drama it does offer its audience should not be handled in such a perfunctory or predictable manner.
The film revolves around Jackie Burke (Robert De Niro), an aging insult comic that tries to continue his offensive brand of comedy to a public that only wants to know and remember him as Eddie, the fun-loving and unpredictable titular character in a sitcom he starred in many decades ago. He's forced to play the cheapest houses in New York City due to his manager Miller (Edie Falco) struggling to find him worthwhile gigs. "How much am I making here?," Jackie asks her as he watches a couple dozen of middle-agers giggle at a comedian on stage. "The entry fee," Miller replies, "which is $11 plus a burger." "Your commission is gonna be a f****** pickle," he tells her before heading towards the stage.
Robert De Niro, Leslie Mann, Danny DeVito
3 February 2017
Steve's Grade: B+
His routine goes fairly well, but when he notices a couple heckling him for yuks on their web-show, Jackie snaps and assaults them, resulting in a heavy fine, one-hundred hours of community service, plus a month's jail-time after insulting them both in court. When he emerges, he realizes he's gone viral, in addition to the added exposure making him more of a household name than he's been in a while. He frequently arrives at his brother Jimmy's (Danny DeVito) restaurant, mostly in search of pocket money so he can continue peddling his wares to other comedy clubs. Soon enough, he meets Harmony (Leslie Mann) while doing his community service, and the two become friendly with one another due to being in both less than savory circumstances. She's in the middle of an ugly breakup and is bossed around by her overbearing and manipulative father (Harvey Keitel).
Conventional wisdom would have you believe that Harmony sticks by Jackie's side as he tries to find standup success, forgoing her own misfortunes in favor of her newfound friend's. This proves to be untrue, however, for after the two have sex, Harmony darts off to Florida with her father, leaving Jackie by himself, not answering his texts or his phone-calls. She's a fiercely independent woman, even when she's harboring a secret that effects both of them.
The Comedian leaves you as an audience member guessing about the intricacies of Jackie and Harmony's relationship with one another as much as Jackie himself does. Meanwhile, he manages to attend his niece's wedding, much to the dismay of Jimmy's wife, Flo (Patti LuPone), and finds some more viral success along the way. One of Jackie's biggest issues he is "good enough" is never good for him. He can never take an opportunity and capitalize on it long enough; he always seems to disrupt things right as he has the ability to be marginally comfortable.
It's a character flaw for him, and it reminded me of a lot of Henry Chinaski, Charles Bukowski's alter-ego that he wrote about over the course of six books. The underbelly of New York City that's present in The Comedian also reminded me of Bukowski's "dirty realism" style, that always favored low-lit bars and dingy nightclubs over places and commodities of more perceived luxury. There's a great character study in the film that shows Jackie's character handicaps in how they're potentially detrimental to people and relationships, but they're nothing that he feels the need to change. His authenticity is one of his greatest assets, and if he loses that, it would make him question what he really has, if anything at all.
De Niro gives a very strong performance that balances comedy and drama in a way that he hasn't done since Silver Linings Playbook, but Leslie Mann either steals of commands every scene she's in. Her emotions and urgency always feel authentic, and she once again proves her ability to remedy a broken screenplay or strengthen a good one, and here, she gets to do the latter once again.
The film's screenplay - written by four very talented men, Art Linson (writer of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Jeff Ross, famous for his frequent appearances on Comedy Central Roasts, Richard LaGravenese (director of The Fisher King), and Lewis Friedman (writer of BASEketball) - treats the characters in a respectful fashion, the comedy with great consistency, and the drama with strong maturity. As a result, The Comedian is effective on various and difficult cylinders; the kind that writer Judd Apatow and few others have really made work in the last several years.