Friday, February 3, 2017

The Comedian: Can't work the crowd

The Comedian (2016) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated R, for relentless profanity and crude humor

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.3.17

Portions of this film possess the buoyant, effervescent spontaneity of the sublime jazz score by celebrated trumpeter Terence Blanchard.

But only portions.

When Jackie (Robert De Niro) is invited to his niece's wedding, he impulsively asks new
friend Harmony (Leslie Mann) to tag along, little anticipating her questionable taste in
attire. Worse yet, he fails to foresee that his doting niece will expect him to "say a few
words" ... never a good idea for Jackie, in front of a conservative crowd.
Lengthy chunks of the wildly uneven screenplay — Art Linson, Jeffrey Ross, Richard LaGravenese and Lewis Friedman obviously having been too many scripting cooks in the kitchen — ring entirely false. The core relationship isn’t credible for a moment, and the rest of the story can’t rise above that shortcoming.

Nor can Taylor Hackford pull things together. The one-time A-list director of hits such as An Officer and a Gentleman and Against All Odds has stumbled lately, with 2004’s Ray being his most recent success. Love Ranch and Parker did nothing for his résumé, and this new effort doesn’t improve matters. It won’t make a dime.

Other films have covered this ground more successfully, from 1969’s The Comic to 1988’s Punchline and 1992’s Mr. Saturday Night. For that matter, Robert De Niro himself did far better back in ’82, in Martin Scorsese’s acid-hued The King of Comedy.

The Comedian is the familiar story of a once-great talent grown embittered by the fact that people only recognize him for something he did 20 years earlier. In this case, it’s insult stand-up comic Jackie Burke (De Niro), who back in the day lucked into a wildly popular TV sitcom, Eddie’s Home.

Two decades later, fans haven’t the slightest interest in his current material; they only want to hear him shout that show’s signature line — “AR-leeeeeeeeeen!” — delivered every time his blue-collar character was exasperated by his ditsy wife. (The echo of Jackie Gleason’s similar bellow, in TV’s long-ago The Honeymooners, seems deliberate.) Worse yet, people insist on calling him Eddie.

That might be tolerable, if Jackie still could command headlines. But these days he’s relegated to the likes of the tiny, half-empty Long Island club where the story begins: a miserable fate that he has helped create, in part because of his spiteful, intolerant tendency to diss people offstage, they way he insults them from behind a microphone.

Much to the ongoing dismay of his loyal but long-suffering manager, Miller (Edie Falco).

Jackie’s ill-advised response to a heckler seated at the rear of that nightclub precipitates a crisis, a short prison sentence, and 100 hours of community service. His penance in a soup kitchen is one of the unexpected moments when the film springs into life: Jackie’s spontaneous repartee with the scruffy clientele is relaxed, cheerful and genuinely funny. De Niro’s laid-back delivery and comic timing are equally natural, and it’s easy to imagine that he could have enjoyed an equally successful career in stand-up.

Unfortunately, at this point the narrative inserts the improbably named Harmony Schiltz (Leslie Mann), also serving a community service sentence, after having assaulted her former boyfriend and the woman with whom he was caught in bed. To say that Harmony has serious issues is like acknowledging the Pope is Catholic.

She’s a mess ... but a contrived and wholly unbelievable mess, and that’s where this film goes off the rails.

Mann has plenty of perky charm — at quieter moments, when she’s allowed to display it — but she can’t begin to get a handle on this character. Harmony swings so wildly between emotional extremes that she seems in genuine danger of harming herself; at other times, her absent-minded non-sequiturs are simply bewildering. Excusing this on the basis of unhappy love affairs or daddy issues (about which, more in a moment) doesn’t scan for a moment; there’s just no getting around the fact that Harmony is a clumsy movie fabrication, and not the slightest bit real.

Her behavior makes no sense; her so-called conversational banter is eye-rollingly fake, and the notion that Jackie would find her attractive — as opposed to something best studied warily from afar, through a telescope — is utterly ridiculous.

Harmony’s relationship with her father is equally improbable. Mac Schiltz (Harvey Keitel) is a dodgy, clearly larcenous Florida developer whose Svengali-like hold on his daughter might — might — have been acceptable were she fresh out of college, but feels smarmy and decidedly unhealthy as presented ... and yet, Hackford and his writers clearly don’t intend it that way. Apparently Mac is simply overbearing, and Harmony — half-hearted lip service to the contrary — tolerates it. Ick.

We also can’t help thinking, given Keitel’s demeanor — and his long line of nasty screen roles — that Mac would have had Jackie whacked halfway through this silly film.

All of which is a shame, because various other relationships are far more credible, starting with the steadfastly honorable Miller. Falco is never less than perfect, her line readings as credible as the way her character has been constructed; her silent sidelong glances also speak volumes. It’s impossible to imagine how the same set of scripters could have created the wholly persuasive Miller and the utterly ludicrous Harmony.

Jackie also has an at-arm’s-length relationship with his brother, Jimmy (Danny DeVito), who runs a Jewish deli on the Lower East Side. We gradually realize that the two brothers actually get along quite well, or might, were it not for the fact that Jimmy’s humorless, iron-corseted wife, Flo (Patti LuPone), despises Jackie. The latter’s estrangement, sadly, has more to do with trying not to jeopardize his brother’s marriage: another of the uneven script’s finer bits of subtlety.

Some of Jackie’s escapades ring true, as he attempts to stage a comeback; others are as tin-eared as Harmony. A spontaneous performance for the residents of a retirement community is fall-on-the-floor hilarious, and just as smoothly natural as Jackie’s earlier interactions with the soup kitchen visitors. On the other hand, a Friar’s Club roast of beloved 95-year-old comedienne May Conner (Cloris Leachman, channeling Phyllis Diller) goes nowhere, and falls flat in the process.

At other times, the film is buoyed by an impressive roster of actual stand-up talents, most seen at work in various comedy clubs, a few others (Billy Crystal) encountered by chance. The list includes Brett Butler, Jimmie Walker, Gilbert Gottfried, Jessica Kirson and many others, all of whom get an opportunity to be quite funny. De Niro’s banter with Kirson is a stitch.

Jackie’s potential salvation, ultimately, may lie with the unpredictable support of social media ... which raises the story’s most crucial question: Does he even deserve redemption? Spending two hours with such a misogynistic sourpuss is asking a lot, even if De Niro occasionally allows Jackie’s kinder, gentler side to emerge. His profanity-laced, scatalogically enhanced material also is breathtakingly crude, and not for all tastes; at their worst, Don Rickles and Rodney Dangerfield never were this nasty.

But, then, as newbies such as Amy Schumer have demonstrated, modern comedy has, um, ah, “evolved” quite a bit.

All that said, it’s possible — if only via intense concentration — to ignore the film entirely, and focus solely on Blanchard’s smooth-as-silk stylings. We also get a taste of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, courtesy of Jackie’s phonograph player (no digital media for this purist). The tight relationship between comedians and jazz musicians dates back to the 1950s New York/San Francisco club scene, so the musical palette is equally appropriate here.

Ergo, I advise buying the soundtrack album — should one be released — and avoiding the film. The latter’s fitfully successful moments simply get lost amid the bulk of a truly maladroit script.

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