Jackie Burke, the 67-year-old funnyman played with a wink and a scowl by Robert De Niro in “The Comedian,” originally came to fame as the star of a hugely popular, thoroughly dreadful sitcom called “Eddie’s Home.” Everywhere he goes, Jackie is greeted by nostalgic fans (“Eddie! Eddie!”) who demand that he do his “Honeymooners”-style signature line (“Ar-LEEEENE!”). And he invariably responds with the grimly resigned smile of a battered industry veteran who views his greatest claim to fame with more resentment than gratitude, and who knows that its kind will never come his way again.
While De Niro has often been slammed for falling short of his own storied career highs, it would be presumptuous to speculate about how closely he identifies with this particular alter ego. Widely loved though he may be, Eddie is not exactly the prime-time TV equivalent of Vito Corleone, Travis Bickle or Jake LaMotta. For that matter, Jackie doesn’t much resemble Rupert Pupkin, the sociopathic celebrity wannabe De Niro played in Martin Scorsese’s great, savage 1983 satire, “The King of Comedy.”
There are, to be sure, a few superficial similarities between these two fictional funnymen, both of whom benefit from the live-wire unpredictability that De Niro reliably brings to his best and worst material. (“The Comedian” falls squarely in the middle.) Both men, too, wind up committing acts of violence that land them behind bars — Rupert for kidnapping a talk-show host, Jackie for punching a particularly noxious heckler.
That assault takes place early in “The Comedian,” on a rainy night at a Long Island comedy club — the latest stop on Jackie’s long, low-paying journey to Hollywood oblivion. The crude jokes he tells onstage are unsurprisingly laced with bitterness and self-loathing, but at times they are balanced by an unmistakable streak of good humor. Later, when Jackie is performing his court-ordered community service at a soup kitchen — dropping expletives left and right, likening a few visitors to the cast of “Duck Dynasty” — he seems to be having the time of his life.
Things even start to look up when Jackie meets a fellow parolee named Harmony Schiltz, played with brittle radiance by Leslie Mann. Similarly fed up with life after a bad break-up, Harmony isn’t looking to jump into another relationship, let alone one with a washed-up celebrity a few decades her senior. But against her better judgment, she finds herself charmed and intrigued by this most improbable suitor.
Before a third-act twist sends it lurching in a bizarre, melodramatic direction, “The Comedian” largely consists of Jackie and Harmony laughing and swearing their way from one disastrous social occasion to another, propelled across a cold and slushy New York backdrop to the jazzy accompaniment of Terence Blanchard’s score. After Jackie turns up at a family wedding, shocking his brother (Danny DeVito) and enraging his sister-in-law (a scene-stealing Patti LuPone), he and Harmony have an ill-advised dinner with her rude, overbearing father (Harvey Keitel).
All these barbed encounters provide a better showcase for Jackie’s off-color talents than most of the gigs procured by his long-suffering manager (Edie Falco), doing her best to ensure her client’s relevance in a meme-obsessed, reality TV-addicted industry. They also allow for a few affectionate callbacks to De Niro’s own career highlights, the modest pleasures of which I’ll leave it to the viewer to discover. Suffice it to say that it’s delightful to see Keitel and De Niro paying subliminal homage to their old routines from “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver,” this time sans weapons and under a bright ray of Florida sunshine.
Working from a sharp-tongued, soft-bellied script by four writers (including Jeff Ross, master of the celebrity roast), the director Taylor Hackford (“Ray”) aims for the kind of knowing, insider-ish portrait of a milieu previously depicted in movies like Mike Birbiglia’s “Sleepwalk With Me” and “Don’t Think Twice,” or Judd Apatow’s “Funny People” (which also featured Mann in a key supporting role). To that end, “The Comedian” comes stacked with cameos by real-life stand-up regulars, including Brett Butler, Jessica Kirson and Hannibal Buress, bringing welcome jolts of humor and verisimilitude to what often feels like a succession of forced audience reaction shots.
De Niro, for his part, has always had an instinctive gift for comedy, as amply demonstrated in movies as different as “Brazil,” “Wag the Dog,” “Analyze This” and “Meet the Parents.” And if his recent pre-election video is any indication, he has the makings of a great, take-no-prisoners insult artist — a role for which “The Comedian” sometimes feels like an amusing but not entirely successful test run.
It’s possible to like Jackie Burke and enjoy his foul-mouthed company without fully believing in him — or the stage version of him, anyway. De Niro’s scenes with Mann glow with warmth and wit, but something in his performance clenches up whenever Jackie gets behind a microphone and starts railing about masturbation, incontinence and other below-the-waist targets. There’s a canned quality to these zingers that doesn’t suggest an authentic expression of a comic’s juvenile edginess so much as a screenwriter’s idea of it.
De Niro may have given one of the defining performances of his career as a talentless comedian, but there’s no doubt he could play a talented one superbly. But it would take a sharper, nervier movie than “The Comedian,” whose promising setup and shambling rhythms are ultimately deflated by a soggy final punchline, to see that promise realized.
MPAA rating: R, for crude sexual references and language throughout
Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes
Playing: AMC Century City 15, Century City