With a cast that resembles a 90’s crime movie (Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Danny Devito), the director of Ray (Taylor Hackford), and a premise that has been a passion project for all those involved, you would think that The Comedian has everything lined up to be a hit. You would be wrong. Whether it be the unfunny jokes our main character tells, the strange subplots used to fill up time, or the underlying message of “being rude pays off,” The Comedian is one of the more ugly movies to see a wide release.
The plot follows Jackie Burke (De Niro), a stand up comedian who rose to fame starring in a family friendly sitcom from the 70’s. Desperate to make a career separate from that role, Burke has made a name for himself being a more standard vulgar comedian. After going to jail for for assaulting an audience member he finds himself doing community service at a local homeless shelter where he meets and starts a relationship with Harmony (Leslie Mann).
Look, that’s a pretty basic movie set up, “why the harsh reaction?” you might ask. Before we get to the overall issue with the film (read: it’s horrible message), we need to cover that the script itself is sub par. The Comedian would definitely fall under the “dramedy” banner, unfortunately it does not succeed at either drama or comedy. Since it is a film about comedians, we spend more time focusing on the stand up set and how the audience are receiving jokes, rather than participating as an audience in the jokes. It doesn’t help that most of the material here isn’t that funny.
Where the film lacks in laughs it could make up in drama but any dramatic storytelling attempted here is a misfire as well. We either see Burke acting like an absolute jerk to his friends and family (belittling them, using them for money, constantly being coarse around them) or we spend time with the developing relationship between the 73-year old De Niro and the 44-year old Leslie Mann. Now I understand that there are couples with age differences like that and there is real love in those relationships, but that is not what is happening here. In The Comedian, we have a 73-year old jerk who cares for no one but himself and his “reward” of sorts is a relationship with a much more attractive younger woman. The film never attempts to even address this elephant in the room, treating it 100% as normal, so we as the audience are left to be bewildered at best and appalled at worst.
Apart from the central relationship of the movie, The Comedian seems to go out of its way make sure there is no redemption (or even condemnation) for Burke’s actions throughout the film. Again, he belittles his fans for remembering a good TV show, he uses his family for money, he flirts with homophobia throughout the story and most prevalent of all, he shows no respect for and is extremely rude to anybody he comes in contact with. Now it is one thing for a movie to have an unlikable main character, it is another thing for EVERYTHING to work out in the end for that character. Without giving away spoilers, I’ll just say that I was dumbfounded how the movie never attempted to teach Jackie Burke the error of his ways, instead he is actually rewarded for all of his horrible actions with an ending where he is still in good standing, despite never attempting to change.
We have a movie about comedians that isn’t very funny, dramatic aspects that are so strange you have to wonder how the script made it to production, and a central theme that has no care for decency at all. A smarter movie would use this premise to comment on our 2017 celebrity culture and how we elevate horrible people because they have a lot of hits on YouTube, but that is not this movie. The Comedian plays it completely straight and we end up with a movie whose message is “it doesn’t matter how you treat the people in your life as long as you go viral.” Just watch any stand-up special on Netflix instead and it will be a better use of your time.