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The Comedian, starring Robert De Niro, explores how aging comics navigate decades of cultural shift

De Niro plays a shock comic with a potty mouth whose career is on the rocks.

Robert De Niro in The Comedian
Robert De Niro in The Comedian
Sony Pictures Classics
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

If one marker of a successful film is that it’s surprising, then The Comedian succeeds for almost all of its two-hour run time.

However, that’s mostly because until the end, The Comedian doesn’t really have a plot. It’s more like a series of capers, headlined by a character — a washed-up comedian who bottoms out — who’s more complex than the initial sketch may seem.

The Comedian pratfalls into predictability by the end, but it has a spark of something interesting in its head. And thanks to its talented cast, it sidesteps most of the maudlin traps implied by its premise.



Robert De Niro stars as a washed-up comedian in need of a break

Jackie Burke (Robert De Niro) is on the last legs of his insult-comedy career, after starring decades earlier as “Eddie,” a grumpy patriarch, in a sitcom called Eddie’s Home. Now he’s 67 and making a living doing halfhearted gigs in clubs, delivering routines laced with profanity and self-loathing, and snarking at his long-suffering manager (Edie Falco).

One night during a gig — at a club in Hicksville, New York, on Long Island — Jackie ends up in an altercation with an audience member that lands him in the Nassau County Correctional Facility for 30 days. When he gets out, he starts serving his community service at a homeless shelter. There he meets Harmony (Leslie Mann), who’s many years his junior and also doing community service for assault.

They hit it off. Turns out Harmony’s father Mac (Harvey Keitel) is a huge fan of Eddie’s Home, and Jackie has been coerced by his brother (Danny DeVito) and sister-in-law (Patti LuPone) to attend his niece’s wedding. So they trade off with family obligations, figuring there’s some strength in numbers: Harmony comes to the wedding, and Jackie goes to dinner to celebrate Mac’s birthday.

Leslie Mann and Robert De Niro in The Comedian
Leslie Mann and Robert De Niro in The Comedian.
Sony Pictures Classics

Both events are disastrous, as you might guess, and set off the film’s conflict and conclusion, which start to run along more conventional Hollywood lines. But along the way there are some funny bits, particularly Jackie doing a wildly offensive impromptu set at the wedding that enrages half the room and leaves the other half gasping for breath.

The Comedian suggests that humor is the language all generations speak

The Comedian is directed by Taylor Hackford (director of Ray and, incidentally, husband of Helen Mirren), and its greatest asset is its subtly nostalgic style. Gliding tracking shots capture a New York that has the flair of time gone by: old New York delis, streets and buildings only recognizable to outer-borough dwellers, a Greenwich Village that looks a lot more like the 1980s — when De Niro played another comic, Rupert Pupkin, in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy — than the idealized post-Giuliani movie version. It’s a little dirtier and chillier, no gloss to be found on the settings or people, and all backed by a score by the prolific jazz composer and performer Terence Blanchard (Clockers, 25th Hour).

Fittingly, The Comedian is mostly interested in how comics navigate decades of cultural shifting in their profession: On the one hand, jokes about race and sex and gender don’t sound the same in 2017 as they did in 1982, but reality TV has made a different kind of shock socially acceptable. And of course, the challenge of getting an audience in the room has changed, with viral videos and social media attracting new and different crowds than in the past. (Mercifully, The Comedian forgoes any rants about hipsters and their tweetchats when grappling with this idea.)

The Comedian takes a surprisingly nuanced view of this generational divide, with several pointed exchanges between young comics and older ones and, in one scene, between the 67-year-old Jackie and a group of elderly people in a retirement home, a generation older than him. Jackie is solidly from another era — when we first meet him, he’s performing at a classic TV sitcom nostalgia night — and though his relationship with Harmony isn’t entirely informed by their age difference, it’s always present.

It’s clear to Jackie that the world has changed, and older comics are trying to keep up with the times, especially with comedy promotion shifting to the internet. But Jackie isn’t bitter that the world is changing — only that it seems to want him to stay the same, to keep playing Eddie when he wants to move on.

Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro in The Comedian
Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro in The Comedian.
Sony Pictures Classics

There are some (possibly intentional) echoes here between aging shock comic Jackie and De Niro himself, a man who became a star a long time ago playing mostly tough-guy characters but has spent the latest part of his career mostly playing comic roles. De Niro’s performance crosses his earlier persona with his more recent comedic roles, and the result is not only funny but also startling and invested with pathos.

So though it sounds goofy (and sometimes it comes across that way in the movie), The Comedian tries to make the case that comedy furnishes a cross-generational language — especially transgressive comedy, at least when it’s an equal-opportunity offender. The Comedian tries to distinguish this kind of ribald humor from what it sees as the tasteless and vulgar, which hurts people more than it shocks them.

Whether you’re along for the ride on this point probably depends on your tolerance for insult comedy. So maybe The Comedian’s nostalgia is a thinly veiled critique of a particularly modern brand of political correctness after all — which means its turn toward the sentimental near the end rings a bit hollow.

Still, for most of the film — thanks, in large part, to De Niro, Mann, and the parade of great actors and comics who show up in the film — the humor and the shock work together effectively. The Comedian isn’t the funniest movie about comics, nor is it the best, but it doesn’t bomb, either.

The Comedian opens in theaters on February 3.

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