Gifted stars lay rotten eggs in ‘The Comedian’

By ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

If you try hard, as in very hard, you might be able to force a laugh or two during “The Comedian,” which stars Robert De Niro as Jackie Burke (born Yaakov Berkowitz), an aging Jewish comedian. Come to think of it, one or two laughs may be pushing it, since this so-called legendary comic fails to tell even one remotely humorous joke in the ponderous 119-minute film.

Jackie Burke is in the twilight of his career, having started out as the popular lead star in a Golden Age TV sitcom loosely based on “The Honeymooners.” Now his humor has gone more in the direction of foul-mouthed, provocative stand-up, reminiscent of the likes of Lenny Bruce and Andrew Dice Clay, except none of Jackie’s jokes are particularly clever, engaging or entertaining, let alone funny.

While De Niro is one of the finest screen actors of all time, he’s doesn’t seem to have his heart in the various “comic” scenes sprinkled throughout the plodding film. Then again, maybe that has something to do with a predictable, mean-spirited screenplay (by Art Linson and three others), and listless direction from Taylor Hackford.  

Burke is arrested after punching a heckling audience member during one of his nightclub acts. His routine is so pointlessly vulgar and over the top, that the audience roots for the heckler to punch him out.

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Forced to do community service, Burke is assigned to work in a food kitchen for the homeless,  where he meets Harmony (Leslie Mann), an insecure divorcee who is also doing community service for assaulting her ex-husband.  

Mann does her best to bring an endearing charm to Harmony, but her radiance fails to lift the dark clouds from this downer of a film. Also not helping is a lack of chemistry between Harmony and Burke, who is almost as old as her on-screen father (Harvey Keitel), which only serves to make their relationship more ludicrous.

Keitel’s talents, like those of De Niro, are wasted in his heavy-handed portrayal of a mob-connected Floridian who operates nursing homes as a respectable front. 

Harmony accompanies Jackie to Comedy Central and other standup venues where she laughs uproariously at jokes that are utterly devoid of real humor or sardonic edge.  The only real laughs emerge from various real-life comics who make cameo appearances throughout the film.

Jackie’s other relationships are also dismal failures.  He constantly borrows large sums from his deli-owning brother, played by Danny DeVito, who seems vaguely aware of how awful the screenplay he has been given really is.

Perhaps the most egregious bit comes when Jackie is pressed into doing a routine in the dining hall of a Jewish assisted-living facility.  He leads the aging audience in an embarrassing version of “Making Whoopee” — substituting a word that means excrement for “whoopee.”  The word, which is only funny to 4-year-olds, would be an apt description of the quality of the writing here and the overall production.