The Comedian suffers from that curious phenomenon of seeming to run twice as long as it actually does. In spite of its title, this is primarily a drama, although its tone-deaf nature suggests that director Taylor Hackford and the screenplay by Art Linson, Jeff Ross, Richard LaGravenese, and Lewis Friedman want to meet at the halfway point between two overarching tonal treatments of the material. On one hand, we have a lot of melodramatic developments that exist purely as contrived methods to push forward a thin narrative. On the other, we have a pretty silly comedy that fancies itself at times to be a commentary on the state of the stand-up comedy scene for supposedly washed-up former sitcom stars. The film floods its audience with cameos (speaking and not) from respected legends of the comedy circuit, as well as newer faces that may join the revered in several decades.
These are all of the elements of which the screenwriters apparently believe it is in need, but perhaps the inclusion of so many recognizable faces (which range from the likes of Hannibal Buress to Billy Crystal to even the long-lost likes of Jimmie Walker, he of "Good Times" fame with that infamous catchphrase) stunted the budget for a screenplay that placed them within material that suited them. Here, we have a pretty rote character study that follows Robert De Niro (himself a legend, though not typically within the comic sphere) as Jackie Burke, a mythical figure in situational comedy for an "All in the Family"-type program that ran thirty years ago to great success. Now, though, Jackie (to whom everyone refers by his onscreen ego, of course) plays comedy bars and signs autographs for a pittance, barely existing in New York City alongside his resigned but dutiful manager Miller (Edie Falco).
After getting into a kerfuffle with a heckler trying to film his comedy routine one evening, Jackie is given thirty days in jail and 100 hours of community service, which he fulfills at a nearby homeless shelter. There, he meets the much-younger Harmony Schiltz (Leslie Mann), in for the broken jaw she gave her ex during a fight, and the two strike up a friendship that reluctantly segues into an awkward romance when each agrees to help the other deal with his or her family at upcoming events. For Jackie, it's the marriage of the daughter of his brother Jimmy (Danny DeVito) and sister-in-law Flo (Patti Lupone) to another woman; for Harmony, it's a lonely birthday dinner for her father Mac (Harvey Keitel), a longtime admirer of Jackie. These sequences are uncomfortable freak-shows of physical comedy and forced melodrama, but the film isn't done yet.
This is a film that must contrive for Jackie and Harmony to sleep together, which leads to an entirely predictable third-act "revelation" that becomes the sole reason for Harmony's existence. It must also contrive for Jackie's popularity to wax and wane, from a disastrous appearance in a retirement community home that involves a defecation-themed parody of Eddie Cantor's "Makin' Whoopee!" that goes viral to an equally disastrous taping for a reality-television pilot that makes "Fear Factor" look tame to the death of a comedy icon that is played for humor. This nonsense adds absolutely nothing to a film that loses its way also with a misguided relationship drama that feels like it belongs in a different picture. At 119 minutes, The Comedian instead regrettably feels like 238.
Robert De Niro (Jackie), Leslie Mann (Harmony), Edie Falco (Miller), Harvey Keitel (Mac), Danny DeVito (Jimmy), Patti LuPone (Flo), Cloris Leachman (May Conner), Veronica Ferres (Karola), Lois Smith (Miriam), Billy Crystal (Himself).
Directed by Taylor Hackford and written by Art Linson, Jeff Ross, Richard LaGravenese, and Lewis Friedman.
Rated R (crude sexual references, language throughout).
Released in select cities on February 3, 2017.