Stellar Cast Elevates “Comedian”
Groucho Marx’s third wife once stated, “If he’d only said ‘I love you’ once, I would have stayed.” No doubt, it must be difficult living with someone who makes their living cracking wise, especially those whose humor has a mean-spirited edge to it. Certainly, the boundaries between the performer’s personal and professional life must blur at times and quips are made, feelings are hurt, assurances are given that it was only a joke, but the offended party knows all too well that there’s a grain of truth in every jab.
Taylor Hackford’s The Comedian focuses on a comic of this sort, an aging funny man who’s managed to alienate not only those foolish enough to want to get close to him but much of his audience as well. A passion project of Robert De Niro’s, who spent over a decade pushing to get this film made while taking on the title role, this character study attempts to get to the bottom of what makes comics tick, where their inspiration comes from and what happens away from the spotlight. The movie is, for the most part, successful in delving into these areas as well as looking at what any entertainer must deal with once their audience disappears.
Jackie Burke (De Niro) hasn’t hit rock bottom yet, but the sort of stand-up gigs he’s getting is far away from the days when he was the star of a wildly successful sit-com, something that was a blessing but now is a bit of a curse for him. While it gave him fame and temporary fortune, the character he played and his signature catch phrase that swept the nation weighs him down like a millstone. Burke’s resentment over not being allowed to move past this project bubbles over one night during a set, when he winds up decking a heckler. Unable to turn off his mouth during the ensuing court hearing, he winds up in jail for 30 days and having to do community service at a soup kitchen where he meets Harmony (an excellent Leslie Mann).
The love story that develops between Jackie and Harmony seems unlikely at first but it becomes more plausible as De Niro and Mann flesh these characters out. Not intimidated by his fame or reputation, Harmony gives as good as she gets where Jackie is concerned, her strength tempered by her own history of bad breaks. Many of the movie’s best moments take place between these two veterans as the natural approach they both take humanizes their characters, helping us understand their seemingly nonsensical actions and sympathize with them even when they’re at their most unsympathetic.
Hackford takes a step back where his directing here is concerned. He knows he’s cast his film well and stays out of his cast’s way. In addition to the two leads, Danny DeVito and Patti Lupone are on hand as Burke’s brother and sister-in-law, respectively. There’s a sense of awkwardness in the scenes they share with De Niro as it’s obvious past sins between the three have not been totally put to rest though the siblings desperately want to make things right with one another. DeVito is particularly strong here reminding us what a good actor he is when he isn’t required to simply go for laughs.
Harvey Kietel appears as Harmony’s father who gets off on the wrong foot with her new beau, Eddie Falco shows up as Jackie’s overworked and long-suffering agent and Cloris Leachman briefly appears as a legendary comic whose celebrity roast goes horribly wrong. Throw in De Niro’s Midnight Run co-star Charles Grodin as a bitter rival as well as Billy Crystal, Brett Butler and Jimmy Walker playing themselves, the film succeeds in having an air of prestige about it, as well as a sense of authenticity.
There’s a degree of poignancy at play here, which Hackford and the cast wisely employ with a deft touch. Living in a politically correct age has made Burke a bit of a dinosaur; times have changed, he hasn’t and he’s paying the price. However, there’s a sense of honor where he’s concerned as the comic sticks to his guns, knowing that to change his approach simply wouldn’t ring true. This applies to his personal life as well, which takes an unexpected but plausible turn that forces Burke to reevaluate his approach to the future.
The Comedian doesn’t attempt to plumb the depth of its protagonist’s psyche like De Niro’s classic King of Comedy does. It’s content with traveling a more pleasant road in examining a similarly self-destructive character that stubbornly sticks to his guns where life, love and work are concerned. Those Burke encounters will likely be alienated by his behavior and he will never achieve the professional success he once had. Still, the comic knows that staying true to yourself has its own rewards.