The Comedian (2016)     ★★★★½

Robert De Niro returns to the life of a comedian, a type of role that became one of his defining performances in 1982 with Martin Scorsese’s King Of Comedy. Often criticized for his choice of films over the last fifteen years, a litany of bargain-basement DTV titles, crude comedies, and overall head-scratchers that do not seem to befit an actor of his caliber, his performance as aging, insult comedian Jack Burke, in Taylor Hackford’s invigorating The Comedian is as close to a return to form as we’ve seen. A witty, slice of life of a stand-up comic, The Comedian wildly succeeds in its dual role as an intelligent, well-developed study of a man and his industry, a character-driven vehicle for examining the stand-up life both under and above ground, and the emerging obsoleting influence of technology on such a career.

The conflict is established immediately through an opening stand-up routine in a local dive, with De Niro’s Burke bemoaning a performance in front of an increasingly thinning crowd. Shortly after beginning his shtick, which involves insulting members of the audience, he spies one of his hecklers filming his routine for an internet “gotcha” series, and proceeds to punch the guy in the face for trying to get famous off his own act. This assault lands him in jail and sentenced to community service, which he fulfills at the local homeless shelter, where he strikes up an unlikely acquaintance with down-on-her-luck Harmony Schiltz (Leslie Mann), trapped between the fallout from a broken relationship and an overbearing father (Harvey Keitel). From here The Comedian is rather scattershot and random, moving from gig to gig for Burke, who is clawing at the bottom of the barrel in most cases, and unable to get back to where he once was, with the overarching relationship with Harmony providing the film’s forward momentum.

Cameos galore show up in Hackford’s film, mostly by comics themselves, like Danny DeVito, Patti LuPone, Charles Grodin, Cloris Leachman, Billy Crystal, Gilbert Gottfried, Hannibal Buress, and a whole host of others, some playing themselves and some playing characters. There are so many that at times The Comedian feels like a huge inside joke, or perhaps for dissenters, a nepotistic bid for relevance, but to me it espoused solidarity among all comics regardless of status, whether just starting out or at the top of their game, their inclusion becoming an underlying unifying cohesion to a film that I might otherwise criticize for its willful lack of a traditional narrative. Hackford’s film’s biggest strength is in tying Jack Burke’s journey to the plight of all comedians, which actually has the effect of rallying the audience behind him. Rather than an inside joke, The Comedian is almost an insiders guidebook to a world that many largely take for granted. Another unifying element to the film is Terence Blanchard’s beautiful, vibrant, jazz score, which acts as connective tissue between disjointed scenes, and along with the roster of comedians, adds consistency to Jack’s world, makes its parts seem all of one piece, as well as unique, and surprisingly fun despite his many untimely pitfalls.

The acting is first rate. De Niro has not been better in over two decades, fully investing himself in a performance that for the first time in a long time feels like a character he actually wants to play. Jack Burke plays life out on his own terms, he’s full of convictions and refuses to go along with something just for the money, and that gives him plenty of dirt for De Niro to dig into. Harvey Keitel is a treasure, and surprisingly good at comedy, even if the film gets more mileage out of the two actors’ history together in other films, namely Taxi Driver, and the plethora of cameos in the film certainly doesn’t discredit the association. But the real star of this film, the breakout performance that I really didn’t know she had in her, although perhaps hinted at in her handling of alternating waves of comedy and drama in Judd Apatow’s This Is 40, is credited to Leslie Mann. On the surface Harmony Schiltz is a basket case of emotions, an ambitionless wreck who, contrary to Burke, cannot seem to live her life on her own terms. But through Burke, and the increasingly bizarre situations she becomes party to, such as a Jewish wedding that turns vicious after a particularly scathing comedy set egged on by the bride, Leslie Mann gradually breathes refreshing life into Harmony. She has a knack for turning on a dime between sadness and joy, laughing through situations that on the surface seem to be only for the audience, that connect her to each of us, as yet another perspective to view the world of stand-up comedy.

The Comedian is somewhat of a return to form as well for director Taylor Hackford, since riding to success with 2004’s Oscar winning Ray, languishing with television movies and the ill-fated attempt to reboot Donald E. Westlake’s Parker novels into a big screen franchise. His talents here are mostly invisible, intruding on the story only as far as his influence in bringing together its various components, and letting the dialogue work through a large and dynamic cast. A lesser director would not have been able to smooth over the arbitrary nature of the screenplay however, which Hackford deftly navigates, ending up with a finished product much greater than the sum of its parts, a film that succeeds at giving us a snapshot of an industry in flux, and the character of Jack Burke as both a microcosm of struggling comics everywhere, and in dealing with his own growth and acceptance of the changing world around him, a person who refuses to bend to his own terms. And on top of that it ekes out one of the most feel-good endings of the year. Comedy is great at bringing people together, and even if you get nothing else out of this film, it’s worth it for the feelings of humility, camaraderie and respect engendered towards the life of a stand-up comic.

The Verdict: Rave

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