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Robert De Niro as 'The Comedian'

Harvey Keitel, Danny DeVito and other veteran actors co-star in an often hilarious comedy

Jan. 31, 2017
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comedian

In The Comedian, Robert De Niro plays a has-been called Jackie Burke (born Jacob Berkowitz) who trudges through the third act of his life. Reduced to headlining “Sitcom Nostalgia Nite” at a run-of-the-mill Long Island nightclub, Burke handles the gig with resigned aplomb until he’s confronted by a jerk in the audience demanding that he “do Eddie”—a reference to his hit TV show from the ’80s, “Eddie’s Home.” Burke wants to leave the past behind but the jerk persists, yelling, “I’m here to be entertained! You work for me!” Tempers rise until Burke punches the jerk out—an incident caught on video that goes viral.

The Comedian

Starring: Robert De Niro, Leslie Mann
Director: Taylor Hackford
Rated: R

After serving 30 days in jail (the inmates sing the “Eddie’s Home” theme as he passes their cells), Burke meets a flinty and much younger woman, Harmony Schiltz (Leslie Mann), while doing community service by dishing out meals at a homeless shelter. She’s also in community service, sentenced for hurling a lamp at the woman she found in bed with her boyfriend. They share disgruntlement. Will love follow?

Although the sparks of attraction-repulsion threaten to flame into a Technicolor Manhattan romance, The Comedian has other things on its mind, especially the perseverance of creativity in old age and the demands of the entertainment industry and its fan base in a degraded popular culture. The Comedian is stocked with actors of De Niro’s generation, including Harvey Keitel as Harmony’s demanding father, gangster Mac Schiltz and Danny DeVito as Burke’s brother, Jimmy Berkowitz—a deli owner long suffering under the recriminations of his unhappy wife, Florence (Patti LuPone). Billy Crystal plays himself in a cameo, joshing with Burke on an elevator ride.

It’s a feast of great character acting led by De Niro, who communicates the bemusement of a sharp-tongued comedian slightly out of step with the times through gesture, expression, a kindly harrumphing smile as well as a gleam of malice that lights his features. Part of The Comedian’s frequently hilarious, often off-color humor comes from the renewed opportunities he finds (and often throws away) through bad behavior broadcast on YouTube, including his jousts with Raw TV, a reality cable channel whose millennial directors are besotted with the clichés of being somehow “alternative” and “game changing.”

The best scenes from The Comedian have the smart, punchy pace and content of a classic Hollywood screwball comedy. Burke’s comedy club scenes have a fresh sparkle that suggests improv and show De Niro in a new light. If he ever tires of movie acting, he could make a good stand-up comic. He’s got the nasty quick wit and the timing down pat.

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