The Joker’s Mild
By Justin Stewart

The Comedian
Dir. Taylor Hackford, U.S., Sony Pictures Classics

“Being funny is not enough anymore!” shouts talent agent Edie Falco at comedian client Robert De Niro, and the line has the unmistakable ring of a thesis statement. It’s the last thing this old road dog wants to hear, but she means that a tight set of semi-amusing dick jokes are inadequate in the current culture of viral videos, social media insta-takes, and clickbait. De Niro’s Jackie Burke had just stormed out of a pitch meeting for a reality show on Raw TV, a crass cable channel whose director (Beth Malone) kicks her Doc Martens up on the table and says things like “Let me bandy it about with my posse here,” while actually blowing off the comedy relic. Clearly, the film is on Jackie’s side—the committee-written screenplay (with jokes by insult comic Jeff Ross) attempts an elegiac note, disdaining the current entertainment climate and sentimentalizing the old school ethics of this Rickles-like crank. Still, thanks to the efforts of Falco’s Miller, Jackie benefits from clickbait culture when cell-cam videos of him bloodying a spotlight-grabbing heckler (echoing a recent incident involving abysmal “clean” comic Dan Nainan) and leading a singalong of a song called “Making Poopy” at a retirement home (the film’s low point) accrue internet attention. That gives Falco the opportunity to say things like, “You’re viral again!” and “Six million views and counting!”, hallmarks of slightly out-of-touch YouTube-era films like Rocky Balboa, Passion, etc.

The comedy club assault lands Jackie in jail for some months (time elided here in the blink of a cut), though the video is a tamer version of real life career-killers like Michael Richards’s racist 2006 Laugh Factory meltdown, which was made worse by his disturbing pseudo-apology on The Late Show. Like Richards, Jackie was a television star in a past life, the title character on an All in the Family-like show called Eddie’s Home. Clips of it (with De Niro sporting an awkward helmet of black hair) reveal Eddie as a salty working cop with a gentle Archie Bunker-ish homophobic streak (“fruitcake son”). The show’s past success and Jackie’s popular recognizability help him land sordid gigs such as the old folks home and a rancid “Nostalgia Nite” alongside the likes of Jimmie “J.J.” Walker and Brett Butler. The film and its 72 year-old director sympathize with these politically incorrect, lightly trod-upon veterans, while simultaneously milking laughs from their creeping irrelevance, making this something like Taylor Hackford’s Gran Torino.

The Comedian doubles as a personal film for De Niro, 73, who, like Jackie, is loathe to turn down a paycheck as he stares down 80, no matter how undignified the work (which is not a knock on the funny Dirty Grandpa). Unlike Jackie, De Niro’s fame rests on a diversified portfolio of great performances, rather than just one TV role (and an old glimpsed LP called The Mind of Jackie Burke), but it’s not hard to imagine the actor’s empathy for the committed artist lowering himself to perform for ungrateful crowds and the elderly for a percentage of the door “and a burger.” The personal quality is driven home by the This Is Your Life–style revolving door of actors De Niro’s worked with, including Harvey Keitel, Charles Grodin and Billy Crystal, all of whom seem to relish an opportunity to fling nasty barbs at their friend (Jackie’s an asshole, you see). There are also inevitable echoes of De Niro’s genius King of Comedy creation Rupert Pupkin, a hack Jackie would’ve loathed, and Raging Bull’s obese Jake LaMotta muttering schtick above the din of chatter and clinking dinnerware.

Pondering these points of metatextual interest is more fun than much of what’s onscreen, particularly when Hackford and company shift their focus to a May-December relationship between Jackie and Harmony (Leslie Mann), whom he meets while performing community service. Though Harmony is in a personal crisis, serving her sentence for assaulting an ex and condescended to by her rich father (Keitel), it’s still surprising that she goes for the old man, unconvincingly assuring him and us that “This is something I want to do,” before having sex (her crying reaction when he first asks her out feels more on-target). The lopsided coupling is even more off-putting than De Niro’s romp with Millennial Aubrey Plaza in Dirty Grandpa, since The Comedian keeps striving for earnest poignancy as it wears on. Mann still manages to be affecting in the role, though Hackford may have been better off casting his wife Helen Mirren, as he did in 2010’s Love Ranch (opposite Joe Pesci), another film that smuggled sentimentality in the guise of raunch.

Hackford has proven himself capable of greatness in the past (Against All Odds, Dolores Claiborne), but his playbook here is rote: witless visuals full of New York skyline filler, groan-inducing plot twists, a generic jazz score that has become the default choice for stand-up-centric shows like Louie and Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. It helps that Ross is funny, and many of Jackie’s punchlines do land, but his personal journey, with its soap operatic turns, is less appealing. There is high public interest in stand-up comedy, evidenced by the popularity of Louie, The Aristocrats, Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, the greenlighting of a show like HBO’s new Crashing, the ability of comics like Hannibal Buress and Amy Schumer to make headlines and the preponderance of specials on streaming services like Netflix. But the subject has been a hard nut for narrative features to crack, from David Seltzer’s pleasantly dreary but unfunny Punchline, to Crystal’s bomb Mr. Saturday Night and Judd Apatow’s unwieldy and self-satisfied Funny People (also with Mann). Stand-up can be so electrifying on its own that a film that tries to crowbar a narrative between the comedy sets might always be doomed to look phony and unnecessary next to a special that just hits record on a talented comic’s act. Just being funny can still be enough.