If you thought “Dirty Grandpa” marked a comedic bottoming out for two-time Academy Award winner Robert De Niro, then you underestimated the catastrophic capabilities of this wretched year. Kicking off 2016 by putting his penis on Zac Efron’s pillow, the cinematic icon who so vehemently desired to punch Donald Trump in the face concludes a painful 12 months as the titular star of “The Comedian,” spouting a slew of sexist, homophobic, and comprehensively dated jokes that America’s president-elect would probably find familiar.
Too conventional to function as shock comedy and too angry to spark spontaneous laughs, “The Comedian” is a film without a purpose. Taylor Hackford’s latest directorial effort never even takes the time to figure out why its central figure turned to stand-up in the first place. Worse yet, De Niro shows little sign of caring what drives our darkest funnymen to say what they say on stage, playing a brash comic (think Andrew Dice Clay) in a performance with less life than the bad grandpa who “thunderfucked” his way through Florida.
“The Comedian” tracks Jackie Burke, a former sitcom star who’s trying to establish a career removed from the popular TV character he played. Hitting up clubs for “11 bucks and a sandwich,” Jackie is the kind of comedian who’s never seen a person without a bullseye on their back. He’ll make fun of his audience, his family, and himself on stage, relying on the microphone in his hand to create some sort of invisible distinction between what he says for laughs and what he truly means.
As can be expected from such no-holds-barred routines, some spectators don’t take the verbal abuse all that well, and Jackie soon finds himself on the wrong end of an assault charge. Sentenced to community service, he meets another court-ordered volunteer named Harmony (Leslie Mann), and the two strike up an unlikely — and inexplicable — relationship. Part of their connection can be explained by her minor fandom for the TV star, but De Niro and Mann struggle to establish any chemistry between the awkward couple in part because they’re not given a good reason to stick together.
Similarly ill-defined motivations become a running theme of the film, as so many storylines hit dead ends and fail to illuminate Jackie’s goals. There’s the strained yet accepted relationship with his brother, played by Danny DeVito, that ends exactly where it began. Harvey Keitel shows up in the film without explanation — other than for a “Mean Streets” reunion midway through — and despite quite a bit of hubbub, Harmony’s bossy father can’t merit his many scenes. And then there’s the cameos! Oh, the cameos. Stars minor and major slide in and out of the picture, as various stand-up comics try to lend authenticity to the story by performing one joke at each venue Jackie visits.
Hackford captures these performances without any particular flair, though it’s worth noting that all of the real comics draw big laughs from the onscreen crowd, and Jackie’s fans are more evenly split. For viewers, it’s clear how much more comfortable these comedians are on stage than De Niro, which is problematic for a character who’s supposed to be a veteran on the circuit. But when Jackie’s on stage, the reaction shots show a divide between howling audience members appreciative of the raunchy humor and the angry, stern expressions of those who don’t get the joke.
Everyone watching the movie will be equally stone-faced, but Hackford never goes so far as to explore the dynamic within Jackie’s splintered audience. (In fact, so little is done with it you may wonder if some of the extras weren’t coached properly and just reacted naturally to De Niro’s duds). Still, you at least want to believe this is a conscience choice meant to convey just how divisive an effective shock comic can be.
Yet to the great bewilderment of us all, guessing what a divided audience means about Jackie is about as far as the film goes in making any kind of statement. “The Comedian” isn’t a movie about an asshole who finds new meaning in life. It’s not about a man who falls in love, or a woman who learns to stop dating self-obsessed jerks. It’s not even a real comeback story, as Jackie’s stakes are never properly defined. (At one point, he needs money, but later he’s handed a check for five times what he needed without lifting a finger to resurrect his career.)
“The Comedian” is a comedy about comedy that just isn’t funny. The shades of drama don’t do it any favors — considering the characters don’t make any discernible progress, and there’s never a point to their stagnation. But worst of all, “The Comedian” marks yet another inexplicable entry in the late period De Niro canon.
Before the film’s AFI Fest premiere, Hackford described his picture as a passion project for two people: co-writer and producer Art Linson (“What Just Happened”) and De Niro. Why the actor would agree to something as bluntly offensive as “Dirty Grandpa” can be explained away (if not forgiven) by money. But his path from “The King of Comedy” in 1982 to “The Comedian” in 2016 is a joke that no one should find funny.
“The Comedian” premiered at the 2016 AFI Fest and will open nationwide January 13, 2017.