It takes a special sort to be stand-up comic, a sort that's not easily faked by even the best of actors, including Robert De Niro, who attempts to play a stand-up in the unfortunately unexceptional "The Comedian."
Comedians are a notoriously unhappy lot, so "The Comedian" starts off on the right foot by establishing De Niro's character Jackie Burke, the 67-year-old former star of the "hit sitcom 'Eddie's Home,'" as a surly cynic and pessimist. On stage, Jackie comes from the insult-comic mold of Don Rickles, and it's apparent"The Comedian" was developed expressly for the star to get to play in the arena of his "Casino" co-star Rickles, who tickled De Niro to no end (ironically, Rickles has a reputation for being very sweet in real life).
But De Niro, while at times a skilled comic actor, is not the naturally funny type to embody a stand-up comic. His caustic routines have been scripted by top-dog roaster Jeff Ross (thank him for the movie's only witty lines; blame three other screenwriters for the rest), and I suppose in a world in which De Niro didn't exist, Jackie Burke's idiosyncratic persona might have a novelty. Mostly, though, this is the kind of movie about stand-up at which actual stand-ups scoff.
The meandering, some might say aimless, narrative begins in earnest once Jackie gets baited by a heckler and lands an assault charge. While doing community-service hours serving meals at a homeless shelter, Jackie meets fellow parolee Harmony (Leslie Mann), and the two strike up an unlikely romance, to the chagrin of her father (De Niro's "Mean Streets" and "Taxi Driver" costar Harvey Keitel). They meet cute, date cute, argue, reconcile...surprise, this is a romantic comedy.
"The Comedian" has its not-unpleasant distractions, but it's all distraction and no content: the score by accomplished composer Terence Blanchard, New York City locations, about a dozen stand-up comic cameos, and a star-studded supporting cast (Danny DeVito and Patti LuPone as Jackie's brother and sister-in-law, Edie Falco as his agent, Charles Grodin as Abbot of the Friars Club, Cloris Leachman as a comedy-world legend).
None of it can make us forget the movie's essential corniness. There's a reason why directors Martin Scorsese, Sean Penn, and Mike Newell all flitted on and off this weakly defined story before it landed with the obviously ill-suited Taylor Hackford ("Ray"). "The Comedian" is fluffy when it should be dark-tinged, and laughably self-serious when it should be funny. Spoiler: it turns out Jackie is a "stand-up" guy after all. If only De Niro had something to work with, he might have given us one of his subtler and superior performances. As it is, this stand-up gives you no reason to sit down.