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Review: "The Comedian" with Robert De Niro

You keep watching and waiting to see what "The Comedian" is about

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The old comedian takes the stage to perform in front of an even older audience – a group of senior citizens. Most of them know him from a hit TV comedy years ago. They're excited to see him, but the expressions on many of their faces turn to shock or disgust when he starts using expletives and doing jokes about sex and body functions. He soldiers on with the nasty stuff, perhaps emboldened by their scowls, and darned if more and more faces in the crowd start laughing. Before long, the comedian has the crowd howling and singing along to the old Eddie Cantor tune, "Makin' Whoopee" only with the lyrics altered to "Makin' Poopee." Someone in the crowd records the bit, puts a contemporary rhythm track to it, and posts it on YouTube. Before long, the comedian is a viral sensation.

Ah, poop jokes. How can anybody resist them? We all poop. It's so relatable. Hooray for poop. And hooray for the comics that champion it.

You want to see a film about the joys and challenges of being a comedian? Watch Mike Birbiglia's Sleepwalk with Me and/or Don't Think Twice. The first film deals with life as a stand-up, while the second looks at the drama within an improv comedy troupe. Both films are very funny. Both films feel authentic.

The Comedian is why I'm recommending Birbiglia's movies this week. Director Taylor Hackford (Ray, The Devil's Advocate) and the sometimes amazing Robert De Niro have teamed up to create a stinker on the same subject. The film is reportedly a passion project years in the making for De Niro and writer-producer Art Linson (What Just Happened?). The result is a story without focus.

De Niro plays Jackie Burke, a sixty-something insult comic who became a household name as the star of a sitcom called, Eddie's Home. Years later, he is still frequently recognized by fans that address him as Eddie and ask him recreate his old signature line
("Ar-LEEEENE!") for them.

While performing at a TV Nostalgia Night show, Jackie gets interrupted by a pair of hecklers. When he discovers they're filming him for some internet show, he becomes furious and attacks the guy. After a month in the hoosegow, he is released conditional to doing community service. That's where he meets Harmony (Leslie Mann), who's doing community service for assaulting an ex.

Jackie and Harmony become friends, and we wonder if the filmmakers are going to ignore the age gap between the two and try to steer this rudderless flick into Rom-Com Bay.

Of course they are, but that doesn't ever really pay off either. That's the thing about The Comedian. Especially after reading about the whole passion project business, you keep watching and waiting to see what this movie is for? Surely it's not just another portrait of a lost, aging man. Could it be a story about a man trying to redefine himself? That could be interesting, but Jackie appears determined to plow ahead with the insults and lazy sex and body function jokes no matter what.

What's particularly annoying is watching him perform at the Comedy Cellar, the famed club seen in almost every episode of Louis C.K.'s Louie. The comic uses language and topics similar to those employed by Jackie, but he does something with them. He explores, incites, entices, alarms and challenges his audience; while Jackie settles for communal giggles and "Makin' Poopee." Nothing wrong with that, but what happens on the screen to warrant making a movie? Where is the passion in the passion project?

Leslie Mann is good. De Niro is in standard latter-day form, except when his character is on stage, where he is a stiff as De Niro guest-hosting SNL. A lot of famous names make appearances, but most of them are just cameos.

There are solid moments in The Comedian, but nowhere near enough to justify sitting through it. Go check out Mike Birbiglia's films. They are deserving and this is not.

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