Robert De Niro has had a penchant in later years for playing lighter comedic roles, leading some fans to yearn for the classic roles he played early in his career with the likes of Travis Bickle, Johnny Boy and the younger Vito Corelone.
Stand-up insult comic Jackie Burke, De Niro’s starring role in “The Comedian,” may not quite rank with those social misfits and miscreants. But the foul-mouthed, 67-year-old, whose limelight has long since dimmed, leaves his mark as a comic who gets a second shot on stage and in life.
Jackie is hard-nosed, and not one to mess with. He can turn on the charm when he must, but he's just as likely to show the anger and bitterness lurking below, such as biting the hand of the nostalgia circuit that helps feed him while struggling to be relevant to an audience one- third his age.
Yet, as a comedian Jackie still has the chops, which he demonstrates repeatedly in front of all kinds of audiences, most of which -- and rightly so -- he considers beneath him.
When viewers meet the Jewish comedian, he has landed a club gig through his grimly patient manager (Edie Falco). The fans are like most who come out to see him: They want to see Jackie reprise the character of Eddie from a popular ’90s sitcom, and shout his signature line of “Arleeene!,” “Honeymooners”-style.
Jackie is well into his standard, sexually-crude act when a nasty heckler provokes him to land a punch, which leads to a court appearance and a monthlong stint behind bars.
Jackie is also sentenced to community service, where he tells outrageous jokes while working the food service line, and meets Harmony Schlitz (Leslie Mann), a woman half his age who is there for similar circumstances.
Harmony's not interested in him at first, but Jackie’s celebrity and occasional sparkle begin to win out. Before long, they’re attending Jackie’s lesbian niece’s wedding, where his off-color set has his sister-in-law (Patti LuPone) boiling over. Later, Jackie’s brother (Danny DeVito) publicly feigns anger in his deli in a comical show of support for his wife.
More fireworks are in store when Harmony takes Jackie to meet her overbearing father (Harvey Keitel), who won’t let go of his “Eddie” demands until Jackie lets loose.
Jackie’s headlining performance at a roast featuring Cloris Leachman as an aging actress (“a barely living legend,” cracks Jackie) also ends badly.
Later, the film switches locations from New York City to Florida, and the plot adds a couple of unsuspecting twists – and a conclusion that seems like an easy way out.
Director Taylor Hackford populates scenes with cameos of veteran comics, including Brett Butler, Billy Crystal and Richard Belzer, that help, along with Jackie’s wariness, to convey the unglamorous and trying life of a comedian. (By the way, if the film’s title conjures De Niro’s role as Rupert Pupkin, the deranged fan and amateur comedian Rupert Pupkin in 1983's “The King of Comedy,” it's only by accident.)
The film benefits from solid acting from the large supporting cast, but it stands on De Niro’s caustically comedic turn. After where he's been lately, it's good to see him back.
3 stars (out of 4)
Starring: Robert De Niro, Leslie Mann, Danny DeVito, Patti LuPone, Edie Falco, Harvey Keitel
Director: Taylor Hackford
Running time: 118 minutes
Rated: R for very crude and sexually explicit humor.
The lowdown: A comedian in the twilight of his career gets a second shot on stage and in life.