Is it too much to want someone to bring the funny in a movie about a comic? The enervating, would-be laugh-in The Comedian is available for home viewing, presumably on the strength of its headliner, Robert De Niro. He’s ill-served by this movie, but he’s been worse elsewhere, which isn’t much of a comfort as this one drags into hour two. Like every exalted star, De Niro generates good will because of who he is and despite his ups and downs, the afterglow of his great performances enveloping him like a luminous cloud. So it takes a significantly bad movie to wipe the audience’s smile off this fast.
The setup sounds promising. De Niro plays Jackie Burke, a stand-up and ex-sitcom star on a downward slide. He’s not killing it the way he once did, and it takes only a few minutes onstage to see why: "Let’s talk about this abortion of a town you live in," he tells one crowd. That’s his way of warming up the room, but the chill remains palpable. Jackie is an insult comic, but his barbs have no edge, no zing, no wit. (It’s unclear if they ever did.) Early on he gets a break after he attacks a heckler and the assault becomes a YouTube sensation, notoriety that earns him brief jail time and new attention.
Jail turns out to be a blip on Jackie’s modest, wobbly career upswing, beginning at a cable station where he and his enduringly patient agent, Miller (Edie Falco), meet the enemy: the younger generation. It’s a nowhere scene, but worth mentioning because it introduces a generational divide and a patronizing attitude toward women that winds throughout. The cable executive turns out to be a tough chick, Carol (Beth Malone), a brittle smiler with short hair who puts her feet up on the table where her eager minions sit like schoolkids. The meeting is a wash (it plays like a metaphor for Hollywood), but is soon forgotten down at the soup kitchen, where Jackie is doing community service.
There’s a lot of story, but mostly the filmmakers rack up the miles and Jackie wears through shoe leather moving from here to there. At the soup kitchen, he finds a sympathetic (and hostage) audience in the homeless clientele and a counterweight to the cable executive in Harmony (Leslie Mann), who’s also doing community service. Mann giggles and laughs too much, which fits Harmony’s role as a prop. She exists to humanize Jackie, hoot at his groaners and, in one scene, gaze adoringly at him while at his feet. She beds him because she has daddy issues; their age difference suggests that the filmmakers share those issues. De Niro’s old pal, Harvey Keitel, plays papa.
The director, Taylor Hackford, never makes any of this pop, which isn’t a surprise given the material. He also doesn’t give you much to look at other than street scenery and De Niro’s mug, which the actor bunches up while cycling through soft, sour moods (aggravated, exasperated), occasionally dropping a smile that might as well be a frown. It took a near-village to write the script, which is credited to Art Linson, the stand-up Jeff Ross, Richard LaGravenese and Lewis Friedman. (The stand-up Jessica Kirson, who appears in the movie, was a consultant.) Billy Crystal shows up for a heartbeat; Jimmy Walker, Charles Grodin, Richard Belzer and Cloris Leachman hang out a touch longer.
Every now and then, as when Jackie is onstage — isolated in the harsh lighting and facing down a show-me world that has become increasingly foreign to him — you can see the movie that The Comedian might have been. There’s a kernel of an idea here about an older performer struggling to be funny in a changed reality (its technology, its women), but to pull that off would require true, deeply felt hostility, something this movie doesn’t want or can’t risk. Jackie isn’t tough enough because the movie isn’t, so his comedic personality never gels. He’s meant to be an insult comic, but his discontent only rises to genuine anger with physical violence. His is the wrong kind of punch.