Robert De Niro is in great form in The Comedian, a black comedy due to open in Canada on February 3.
Here he plays Jackie Burke, an aging, foul-mouthed Jewish shock comedian whose best days are far behind him. Burke, whose real name is Jacob (Yaacov) Berkowitz, was once the beloved star of a popular sitcom, but now, at the age of 70, he scrambles for small-time gigs his agent (Edie Falco) manages to land occasionally.
As the film opens, Burke is telling sexually explicit jokes in a club in Hicksville, Long Island. The locale of his latest engagement speaks volumes. Burke, otherwise known as Eddie to his legion of fans, is washed up, trading on his glory years as a television personality.
Despite his precipitous fall from grace, Burke is still quite a performer, capable of making an audience explode with laughter. But when a heckler teases him, Burke looses his cool and gets into a fight with him. Charged with assault, he’s given a light prison sentence. Upon his release, he’s pressed into community service in a soup kitchen for the homeless.
Being flat broke, he cadges $5,000 from his distant brother, Jimmie (Danny De Vito), the owner of a Jewish deli. De Niro portrays Burke as a lewd and crude operator who’s fast on his feet and quick to respond to slights and insults.
Burke is also thin-skinned. Pitching an idea to a young TV producer who admits she’s a fan, Burke storms out of her office because he thinks she hasn’t given him a straight answer.
Back at the soup kitchen, Burke meets Harmony (Leslie Mann), who’s finishing her stint in community service. She and Burke, after a rough start, hit it off and decide to see each other more often.
They attend the wedding of Jimmie’s daughter, a lesbian who has deep feelings for Burke. At her request, he launches into a series of off-color skits that she finds uproarious but that Jimmie’s wife (Patti Lu Pone) considers offensive.
Subsequently, he agrees to meet Harmony’s father, Mac (Harvey Keitel), a sleazy, moneyed character who happens to be one of his fans. They clash, throwing gratuitous insults at each other and embarrassing Harmony.
Burke next appears at a celebrity roast for a 95-year-old actress (Cloris Leachman) who apparently dislikes him. Recalling her illustrious movie career, Burke dredges up titillating gossip about her sexual escapades.
In all these scenes, De Niro delivers a scintillating performance, but he successfully reaches for the stars in a scene set in a Jewish seniors retirement home in Palm Beach, Florida, owned by Harmony’s father. Burke’s bathroom humor is definitely an acquired taste, but whatever you think of it, it’s outrageously funny and maybe even original.
The video of his madcap performance goes viral, turning Burke into an overnight sensation. His online fame earns him a spot on a TV reality show, but he blows the opportunity
The Comedian, directed by Taylor Hackford, is consistently entertaining, thanks in large part to De Niro and the rest of the stellar cast. But some of its Jewish jokes are really in poor taste and could easily have been left on the cutting floor.