There comes a point in every movie commentary on the entertainment industry when it’s time to introduce the evil new-media brand. It’s been a staple since at least 1994’s Reality Bites, when Winona Ryder’s Lelaina is horrified to discover that her love interest Michael (Ben Stiller) has chopped up her edgy verité documentary into an incoherent montage for his MTV stand-in In Your Face. Now, more than two decades later, The Comedian brings us a network called RawTV, and the earnest creative who must resist its cynical, extreme reality programming (they’re rebooting Fear Factor, more or less) is an aging insult comedian played by Robert De Niro.
The RawTV plot takes up only a small fraction of The Comedian’s ambling run time, but it’s the first definite indicator that director Taylor Hackford’s film is not for anybody under the age of 50. And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, between its well-worn “going viral” plot points, its unlikely May-December romance, and its healthy appetite for Friars Club–style lesbian sex jokes, your mileage may vary. (Comedy Central roastmaster Jeff Ross has a writing credit, and Jim Norton, most famous for arguing about rape jokes with Lindy West, served as the film’s “comedy consultant.”) It’s possible to comfortably drift through the movie’s out-of-touch hangdog vibes, coasting on the amiably acerbic performances of its supporting cast (Danny DeVito, Patti LuPone and Charles Grodin are all fun enough here). On the other hand, this is a film that reaches its emotional climax among a crowd of senior citizens at a nursing home singing a rousing song about the difficulty of bowel movements.
The comedian of the title is Jackie Burke (De Niro), a fading comedian still best known as the patriarch of a decades-old sitcom. After assaulting a heckler who was deliberately baiting him for a viral video, he gets assigned to community service, where he meets fellow perp Harmony (Leslie Mann). The two hit it off and pursue a tenuously platonic relationship, while Jackie also tries to repair his relationship with his brother and sister-in-law (DeVito and LuPone), and get his career out of the gutter with the help of his manager (Edie Falco, bored out of her mind). But Jackie’s tendency to offend both on- and offstage, as well as hold grudges, proves to be a hindrance.
Though the film gets plenty of mileage out of the RawTV exec (“Let me bandy about with my posse,” she says, taking her Doc Martens off the conference table after a lukewarm pitch meeting), Jackie is able to find adversaries from all generations and walks of life: working-class louts, Harmony’s domineering father (Harvey Keitel), the inner circle of the Friar’s Club, a cartoonish gang of bachelorette partiers at an already humiliating gig. At times it almost directly echoes Netflix’s BoJack Horseman, or a Dan Clowes short story, specifically Caricature, a slice-of-life downer about a misanthropic county-fair cartoonist. But the script never has the stomach to really look failure in the eyes the way those works do: Jackie always gets laughs, even if they’re peppered with angry gasps. And those gasps, the film seems to be telling us, are how we know he’s still got it. That, and his girlfriend in the bandage dress.
The Comedian falls into the same trap as most films that hinge on an amazing song or an incredible painting — Jackie’s act doesn’t quite live up to its riotous reception. It’s meant to be of another era, anachronistically un-p.c., but I’m not sure it’s meant to be stale. But whether intentionally or not, the film works better when it’s about a mediocre talent who can’t keep up with the times. Everyone associated with Jackie seems a little more desperate by looking for approval from such a dead-end man, and De Niro’s foggy performance feels a little more true to how that man would be in real life. To the film’s credit, De Niro’s stand-up scenes are genuinely uncomfortable.
The only place Jackie ever feels in his element is among his peers, and by setting so much of the story in this milieu, The Comedian makes its ambition clear: It wants to pay loving tribute to the comedy scene. For Jackie, the club a safe haven of sorts, but it’s also a sweaty, sad circle of despair where all the genuine articles (i.e. the comics brave enough to make jokes about roofies) are few and far between. It might be a love letter, but it’s about as convincing to outsiders as a fifth-grade bully’s doting mother.
From the title and star alone, The King of Comedy hangs over the film like a particularly unflattering shadow; both De Niro and the character he plays have considerably downgraded their professional ambitions. Rupert Pupkin and Jackie Burke share a devotion to some not-quite-real idea of comic glory, and both are essentially broken. Getting into comedy will never be the mark of a mentally balanced human — go to any comedy show and someone will remind you of that at least once — but The Comedian’s insider perspective seems determined not to probe too deeply into the psychology of celebrity, fading or otherwise.