Robert De Niro delivers punch lines without much punch in “The Comedian” – a peculiar movie, other than the modest kick of seeing its star try his hand at stand-up. It’s watchable, barely, thanks to a stellar cast, including several former De Niro co-stars who appeared opposite him in better films.
As a result, director Taylor Hackford’s movie works less as a cohesive story than an assemblage of vignettes, along the way reuniting De Niro with Harvey Keitel, Charles Grodin and (briefly, as himself) Billy Crystal.
Although it’s familiar, the premise certainly had potential. De Niro plays Jackie Burke, an insult comic who has fallen on hard times and walks around with a sizable chip on his shoulder. Part of that has to do with being constantly identified with the character he played in a fictional old sitcom, “Eddie’s Home,” so much so that people chant “Eddie” when he performs and plead with him to yell the character’s patented catchphrase.
Forced to perform community service after a run-in with a heckler, he meets the much-younger Harmony (Leslie Mann), with whom he strikes up an awkward and not especially convincing relationship. The idea of two damaged people finding each other is hardly a new one, but there’s seldom a moment where anything about Jackie and Harmony makes sense.
The pair essentially careens from one scene and prickly encounter to the next, seeing Jackie’s brother (Danny DeVito) and his wife (Patti LuPone), or having dinner with Harmony’s father (Keitel). Along the way, there are multiple chances for Jackie to ply his trade and banter with fellow comics, with more than a dozen (among them Hannibal Buress and Jim Norton) appearing as themselves.
Although he needs money, Jackie is frequently his own worst enemy, a fact that pains his manager (Edie Falco), who inherited him as a client from her late father. That subplot is actually one of many that could have been intriguing on its own that “The Comedian” under-develops.
There is something refreshing about the movie’s unabashed nostalgia factor and its structure as an obvious star vehicle. The project is defined not only by affording De Niro a meaty role that shares certain personality flaws with his character in “Raging Bull” but casts many older actors in smaller parts, among them Cloris Leachman as a comedy matriarch. If nothing else, nobody can accuse this movie of chasing a younger demographic, it’s blue language notwithstanding.
“The Comedian” also provides a bit of backstage insight into the clubby world of comics, which must be in the zeitgeist right now, since it’s the subject of upcoming series on HBO and Showtime. (The script is credited to four writers, among them comic Jeff Ross.)
Divorced from that helpful context, though, this just isn’t a particularly good movie. And while Jackie harbors plenty of rage, “The Comedian” is ultimately too heavy on the bull.
“The Comedian” opens in the U.S. on February 3. It’s rated R.