The Comedian, C+
Rated R, 119 minutes
Stand-up comedy can be a brutal but also painfully honest art form, something explored in the charming but uneven dramedy "The Comedian," starring Oscar-winner Robert DeNiro and directed by "Ray's" Taylor Hackford. Fortunately for the film, the comedy bits are the highlight and DeNiro is solid as usual since the rest of the story, particularly late in the film, is rough going.
Former TV star and insult comic Jackie Burke (DeNiro), has seen better days. Despite his efforts, people only want to know him as his popular TV character. Already a strain on his agent (Edie Falco), younger brother (Danny DeVito) and his wife (Patti LuPone), Jackie is forced to serve out a sentence doing community service for accosting a heckler. While there, he meets Harmony (Leslie Mann), the daughter of a sleazy Florida real estate mogul (Harvey Keitel), and the two find inspiration in each other.
"The Comedian" is directed by Hackford with a script by Richard LaGravanese ("The Fisher King"), Jeff Ross, Lewis Friedman and Art Linson (comedian Ross and Friedman wrote the comic bits, the rest by La Gravanese and Linson), is a charming but sluggish portrait of a washed-up comedian struggling to reinvent himself. The film works best when DeNiro (believably funny here) is working the comedy clubs in New York City, not to mention there are appearances from scores of real comedians, including Hannibal Burris, Jim Norton, to even the likes of former TV stars Jimmie Walker of "Good Times" fame and Brett Butler as well as DeNiro's "Analyze This" co-star Billy Crystal, to give the film some added authenticity.
Offstage, the likable but overlong "The Comedian" wears out its welcome with tiresome, shoddy plotting, especially Jackie's involvement with Mann's character, an unnecessary, out-of-place subplot that hurts the film. Then there's a long, slow stretch that doesn't help, either: a Friars Club bit with Cloris Leachman and Charles Grodin and an extended turn in a Florida old-folks home both fall flat. Of the large, talented cast, DeVito, LuPone and Falco are all underused (and Keitel is just out of place), not to mention one icky plot point in its final act will make you really notice the age difference between Mann and DeNiro.
It's hard not to like "The Comedian," but I wish it had a better story to back up some of those funny, mostly off-color jokes (that won't be reprinted here) that DeNiro and company tell here. Considering the material and the talent involved, and outside of the standup and DeNiro, it's a disappointment.