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Having its world premiere at AFI Fest, ‘The Comedian’ offers Robert De Niro a chance to be a cutup

Leslie Mann and Robert De Niro in "The Comedian."
Leslie Mann and Robert De Niro in “The Comedian.”
(AFI Fest)

Taylor Hackford has staged tap dancing in the Cold War and piano playing on the chitlin’ circuit. But he’s never showcased public performance quite like he does in “The Comedian.”

The director’s new movie, which had its world premiere at AFI Fest in Hollywood this past weekend, stars Robert De Niro as graying hack comedian Jackie Burke.

Known for, and hamstrung by, a broad sitcom he starred in years before, Jackie is mostly just limping along in life as a stand-up. One night, in a sad-sack comedy club, he attacks a heckler, sending himself on a spiral that lands him in jail, economic straits and, eventually, an entanglement with Harmony (Leslie Mann), a similarly tempestuous personality at a similarly down-on-her-luck place in her life.

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De Niro, playing a version of where his touchstone Rupert Pupkin character might have ended up (with more success and meds), makes the most of his stand-up opportunities, delivering the Don Rickles-ian lines with maximum bite and neuroses. His insult bits work particularly well at his niece’s lesbian wedding, where the pleasure of him reeling off zingers is matched only by the smoke coming out of the ears of Patti LuPone, who plays Jackie’s sister-in-law.

Indeed, when it arrives in theaters next month from Sony Pictures Classics, “The Comedian” will offer the chance to watch the kind of older actors who rarely get meaty parts in superhero-era Hollywood, let alone meaty roles in the same film.

Written by Art Linson, Jeff Ross, Richard LaGravenese and Lewis Friedman — and co-produced and financed by Cinelou Films (“Cake”) — “The Comedian” is one part twilight-years character study, one part entertainment-world dissection. It’s that latter aspect that proves most beguiling and on point. De Niro researched the part by frequenting a number of comedy clubs, particularly the Comedy Cellar in New York. (“Louie” fans take note: The landmark makes a number of key appearances.)

“This was a passion project for Bob,” Hackford said at a post-screening Q&A, noting the 27-day shoot and the lean-and-mean nature of the stand-up scenes in particular. “It may be rough around the edges, but what we were going for is a certain vitality,” he said.

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The actor noted that for all of his experience in front of a camera, performing in front of a crowd — even a crowd of paid extras — brought a certain pressure. “It was more difficult than I had thought it would be,” he said. “You’re up there and can die. Sometimes I sort of felt like I was dying.”

When Jackie is offstage he has a particular rapport with his deli-owner brother, played by Danny De Vito, though from the Q&A you could be forgiven for thinking it was the “Twins” actor who wanted the comic role. (To Mann: “It’s really good you read the whole script. I only read my lines and didn’t know what the … it was about.”)

Mann said that being surrounded by so much shtickiness wasn’t new for her. “I live with a comedian,” she said dryly, a reference, of course, to husband Judd Apatow.

The actress nicely upends the only-sane-person-in-the-asylum roles she plays in her spouse’s movies. But the chief pleasure in “The Comedian” is De Niro, bringing to it not only pathos but a kind of “Analyze This”-ish comic timing that his more dramatic roles don’t allow. As Hackford said, describing his thinking before he signed on to the movie, “If Bob De Niro wants to submerge into this character, I want to be there.”

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On Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT


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