*** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Taylor Hackford
STARS Robert De Niro, Leslie Mann
- Robert De Niro in The Comedian (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)
The bad news regarding Robert De Niro is that the actor has backed away from his 2016 claim that he'd like to punch Psychopath-in-Chief Donald Trump in the face — a shame, since a bout between Raging Bull and Raging Bullshit sounds like a guaranteed good time. The good news, though, is that he's also backed away from delivering grotesque performances in unwatchable atrocities — well, for one picture anyhow.
De Niro, whose 2016 vehicle Dirty Grandpa placed high on countless 10 Worst lists (mine included), has occasionally stirred from his paycheck-snatching stupor to remind viewers that the talent within can still be stoked from time to time. It was on view in 2012's Silver Linings Playbook, it was on tap in 2015's The Intern, and it's on display in The Comedian. Directed by Taylor Hackford (Ray) and co-written by a quartet that includes producer Art Linson (The Untouchables) and veteran scribe Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King), The Comedian is a ragged but often uproarious piece about Jackie Burke (De Niro), a struggling stand-up comic best known for his starring role on an inane sitcom from an earlier decade. As his agent (Edie Falco) is kept busy trying to find anyone who will hire him, Jackie ends up befriending Harmony (Leslie Mann, typically excellent), a single woman dealing with her own set of issues.
A two-hour seriocomedy that could stand being trimmed by about 15 minutes, The Comedian benefits from the nice rapport between De Niro and Mann, the contributions of a knockout supporting cast (including Danny DeVito, De Niro's Midnight Run co-star Charles Grodin, and, in a nice nod to their Scorsese collaborations, Harvey Keitel), and hard-edged humor that isn't afraid to go for the low blow. De Niro is in fine form here, particularly when he's taking no prisoners in his stand-up routines. I'd say let's wait and see what he does for an encore, but the track record suggests he'll be back to churning out dismal duds in no time. For the moment, though, it's nice to see him deserving cheers rather than jeers.