To paraphrase Groucho Marx, I’ve seen a very funny movie… but this wasn’t it.
A movie called The Comedian isn’t required to be funny. There are plenty of reasons a movie with that title might not be. A movie called The Comedian that features at least half a dozen extended sequences of standup comedy probably should be at least a little bit funny. Here, no such luck.
Instead, we have Robert De Niro as a bitter insult comic who’s known more for a sitcom he starred in decades before than he is for his standup comedy, much to his chagrin. After assaulting a heckler one night in a comedy club, he’s sentenced to community service at a soup kitchen, where he meets Leslie Mann, who’s been sentenced to her own community service after assaulting a philandering boyfriend. The two sort of hit it off and go out a few times, each time somehow resulting in De Niro being called on to perform his insult routine, to the amusement of some and the sheer horror of plenty of others.
And that’s mostly it. Sure, the relationship between De Niro and the much younger Leslie Mann gets a bit deeper, but for the most part we jump from opportunity to opportunity for De Niro to pull his schtick and to leave plenty of hurt feelings along the way, while he learns more or less nothing about the kind of person he ought to be and whether or not what he’s doing is actually worthwhile. And worse, it’s essentially never funny. And worse yet, it commits the cardinal movie sin of mostly being dreadfully dull. When one of the major climaxes of your movie is an extended song that makes liberal use of the word “poopie,” you know your creative well is running pretty dry.
It’s not for lack of trying. De Niro and Mann do their best with the material, and the rest of the cast is peppered with people who know what they’re doing, including Danny De Vito, Patty LuPone, and Harvey Keitel. But there’s just no escaping that The Comedian really, really wants to be funny, and it simply can’t find a way to do it.