Image: Sony Pictures Classics

By Kyle G. King. There are few differences between an insult comic and your perverted uncle at Thanksgiving, but those differences do exist. While both are likely to play for shock value laughs with their ‘I can’t believe he said that’ punchlines, most stand up comics don’t exist in a vacuum outside of cultural relevance. Keeping your name on the marquee means keeping your set fresh, connected, and dynamic. That’s what makes you a performer, shtick be damned. In Taylor Hackford’s The Comedian, Robert De Niro stars as a washed-up stand up star at the center of a cultural conversation. What’s funny is that this film ends up having a conversation about nothing at all.

Jackie Burke (De Niro) is languishing in post-sitcom purgatory as the former star of a well loved television show, unable to hustle that dwindling fame into a stand-up career of his own. His manager (Edie Falco, doing very little with even less) is unable to book anything that can net much more than “eleven dollars and a sandwich.” Jackie’s career is all but dead until he assaults a heckler out for his own brand of fame on video, which is enough to land Jackie both mandatory community service and viral fame. (“Viral” being but one example of the stodgy film showing that it understands the modern vernacular.)

Jackie meets the much younger but just as foul mouthed Harmony (Leslie Mann), and the film moves forward with this pair — not to explore their relationship really, or to prove that all one needs in this business is heart, or even to posit that, hey, assholes can have depth too; no, all The Comedian ever does with these characters is show just how supposedly raunchy Jackie Burke can turn out to be. Jackie and Harmony’s relationship is about has tiresome as that sounds.

Hackford, an Academy Award winning director, is unable to glean any coherence from the messy script he’s been tasked with directing. Hastily written by four different people, somehow — Art Linson, comedian Jeffrey Ross, Richard LaGravenese, and Lewis Friedman — The Comedian remains an anti-generational parable lost in its own time. Jackie enters, shakes things up with his no-nonsense commentary, then leaves without taking either responsibility for his horrible personality or stock into what this means for him as a aging performer (or other performers his age) quickly slipping into obsolescence.

Image: Sony Pictures Classics

For all its attempts at being fresh, The Comedian has a remarkably dated (and tiresome) attitude. It’s far too cynical to take anything seriously and it constantly evades taking responsibility for any of its antiquated bullshit. Even as the film lurches into its third act, Hackford never bothers to connect any of the film’s substantive generational divides or trouble us with any deeper sentiment beyond “Hell, that Jackie will just say whatever he wants, now won’t he?”

As we meander down this utterly perplexing late-career path alongside Robert De Niro, it’s somewhat understandable that he would find some appeal in taking on a treacly dramedy like The Comedian. And his stand up isn’t three-fourths bad, when we get to see slightly raunchier side of him, but as far as getting to the meat and potatoes of The Comedian? The time when De Niro’s ability to hoist an entire film onto his shoulders has long since passed.

The cast around him is well stacked but has little to do other than to chuckle or gasp at Jackie’s boneheaded antics: Danny DeVito (as Jackie’s nameless younger brother) and Patti LuPone (as DeVito’s wife) stand in as Jackie’s primary family unit. Harvey Keitel, Charles Grodin, Cloris Leachman, Billy Crystal, and a self-congratulatory list of modern day stand-up comics all make brief appearances in thankless roles that are tantamount to a tone-deaf Greek chorus. A movie so desperate to shock its audience with homophobic, sexist, and all around offensive zingers can scarcely land a single joke. Surprise, surprise.

Directed by Taylor Hackford.

Produced by Art Linson, John Linson, Mark Canton, Courtney Solomon, and Taylor Hackford.

Screenplay by Art Linson, Jeff Ross, Richard LaGravenese, and Lewis Friedman.

Story by Art Linson.

Starring Robert De Niro, Leslie Mann, Danny DeVito, Edie Falco, Veronica Ferres, Charles Grodin, Cloris Leachman, Patti LuPone, and Harvey Keitel.

2.5 out of 10