Release Date: Feb. 3, 2017
Running Time: 119 minutes
Comedy is a serious business to Robert De Niro. While underappreciated at the time of its 1983 release, Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy features not just one of De Niro’s most gripping performances but his mentally unstable failed comic Rupert Pupkin is every inch as memorable and complex as Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle. Thirty-five years later, De Niro picks up the mic again to spit out more jokes as Jackie Burke, the faded sitcom star in search of himself in the Taylor Hackford-directed The Comedian. Failure of sorts unites Pupkin and Burke. Pupkin couldn’t attract an audience even if he paid everyone’s cover charge. Burke enjoyed great success in the 1980s as a sitcom character who was embraced for his abrasiveness. But he’s forever linked to the role, and audiences want him to reprise the character on stage as opposed to listening to his new material. The insult comic has a short fuse, which lands him in prison for a month. But Burke can’t capitalize on the resulting publicity because he’s stuck in New York doing community service. He has to borrow money from his supportive brother and incensed sister-in-law (Danny DeVito and Patti Lupone, respectively). He doesn’t consider his time working in a homeless shelter as an opportunity to reevaluate himself and his career, but when he meets and falls for the equally quick-tempered Harmony Schiltz (a game Leslie Mann), he finds himself looking in the mirror at a man afforded a chance to change his life for the better. The Comedian’s knowing story by Art Linson asks what it means to be a person who is not allowed to escape his past glories. How hard do you rage against how other people’s memory of who you once were and how that plays into who they want you to be today? And Burke can’t handle it—he even assaults a heckler who doesn’t want to hear his new jokes. De Niro fumes with all the anger of a man who is not allowed to change in the eyes of the public and exudes the frustrations that come with being hostage by an iconic character beloved by millions who refuse to differentiate the actor from his art. De Niro probably can emphasize with Burke given we most commonly associated the Oscar-winning actor’s screen persona with the sociopath Travis Bickle. We expect that intensity from De Niro with every performance he gives, and when he’s goes in a different direction, we demand the perfectionist of the 1970s and 1980s, not the actor who willingly parodies himself in Analyze This and Meet the Parents. The Comedian is more of a comedy than a dramedy—it’s directed by Taylor Hackford with a lightness that’s intended to constantly defuse the tension that surrounds Burke. It also separates itself from other such recent De Niro comedies as The Big Wedding, Grudge Match and Last Vegas because it offers him the chance to play a fully realized character under somewhat tragicomic circumstances. Burke is more than the jokes he tells, and this engages De Niro in way that we have rarely seen in recent years. While he possesses an impeccable stage presence—no doubt aided by Mark Warner’s no-thrills editing—De Niro is most comfortable when he’s peeling back the layers of an irritated funnyman who is haunted by his failure to reach his potential. Burke’s relationship with Harmony goes further than expected, and offers him some hope, even if it’s complicated by her interfering father (Harvey Keitel, who displays an eagerness to engage in verbal conflicts with his old friend De Niro). He’s also blessed with a sharp-witted script that allows Burke to be who he is without compromising him, even when the film offers him a shot at happiness and redemption. The script is credited to four writers, including Art Linson, but the participation of celebrity roaster Jeff Ross provides The Comedian with a unique insider’s view of a profession that spares no mercy. One hilarious scene set within the hallowed confines of the New York Friars Club encapsulates all the problems Burke faces in his bid to return to prominence. Comedy is not pretty, as Steve Martin informed us. Neither is The Comedian. The ugliness Burke must wade through isn’t all of his own creation. And the external factors that trouble him do serve as the source of his stage material. But, as The Comedian states loudly and boldly, a joke is often a cry for help and understanding that falls on deaf ears.
Aired: Feb. 2, 2017
Web site: http://sonyclassics.com/thecomedian/