When fans look back at Robert De Niro's career, he certainly won't be defined as a "comedian" per se. Not like one would immediately classify someone such as Eddie Murphy as a comedian, at least. Still, that's not to say that he isn't funny, because he most certainly is. But he'll likely be more remembered for his dramatic roles in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, more than he will be for Meet the Parents or Midnight Run. In his latest offering, The Comedian, this acting legend gets to showcase his dramatic chops along with his R-rated comedy prowess in a delightful yet overly-long and uneven dramedy.
The Comedian has been a labor of love for Robert De Niro, who has been trying to get this off the ground for the past eight years. Directors such as Sean Penn and Mike Newell were attached at various points in the development process, with Kristen Wiig and Jennifer Aniston attached to the female lead role that Leslie Mann ended up playing. The film was even written by legends in their own right, Art Linson, who produced Robert De Niro in The Untouchables, Heat and What Just Happened, and the roast master himsef, Jeffrey Ross shared writing credit with Lewis Friedman (BASEketball) and Richard LaGravanese (Beautiful Creatures), and the film is just chocked full of comedy superstars, both past and present. While the talent behind this project is most certainly impressive, the film is quite good, yet it feels like it should be much better.
The film, which held its world premiere at AFI Fest over the weekend, follows the unflinching Jackie Burke, an edgy stand-up comedian who became famous the world over for his role on a long-running sitcom. These days, the only time he can find work is showing up for gigs where the audience expects and demands him to be his Ralph Kramden-esque character Eddie, instead of Jackie. At one of these gigs, hosted by Good Times star Jimmie Walker (as himself), Jackie encounters a heckler, who, as it turns out, was trying to goad Jackie into being the subject of his web series, which leads to a physical confrontation and a video of the attack that goes viral. While he could have gotten off with no jail time if he would have "played ball" and apologized to his victims, Jackie refuses, and after a short stint in prison, he is ordered to do community service at a mission, where he meets the feisty Harmony (Leslie Mann).
At 119 minutes, the film isn't excessively long, but its length is certainly felt later on as it plods towards the ending. While the story itself is fairly well-crafted, it feels slightly over-stuffed, with a few characters and sub-plots that could have been nixed entirely. For instance, Harvey Keitel plays the mobster-esque father of Leslie Mann's Harmony, who often clashes with Jackie. Sure, their encounters lead to some good jokes, but the film would have been served so much better if this whole character, and the slightly convoluted sub-plot that swirls around him, was just nixed.
The stuff in The Comedian that works, though, works at a very high level, with Jackie's stand-up sets delivering huge laughs, with Robert De Niro delivering a fantastic performance, portraying Jackie Burke as a man who will never compromise his principals, no matter what the consequences are. Edie Falco also turns in a fascinating and endearing performance as Jackie's long-suffering manager Miller, with Danny De Vito playing Jackie's brother, a hard-working deli owner, and Patti LuPone playing Jackie's sister-in-law, who despises Jackie. The Comedian does work as a wonderful comedy-drama hybrid, with great instances of both comedy and drama, but it just feels like there's too much story weighing the movie down, preventing it from rising over a competitive crop of late-year awards season releases. The Comedian hits theaters in wide release through Sony Pictures Classics on January 13, 2017.