Requiem for a Funnyman
By Michael S. Goldberger
It’s too bad I can’t give you the Goldberger Guarantee for director Taylor Hackford’s “The Comedian,” an assurance of positive viewership I occasionally offer to close friends when I’m fairly confident they’ll enjoy a particular movie. The warranty promises refund of the ticket price if any of those pals doesn’t find the movie in question entertaining. I hate to be a piker, but, without releasing my tax records, rest assured that I couldn’t afford to institute said guarantee en masse. If proved wrong, it would mean Hamburger Helper instead of steak tartare.
Actually, I’m more of a White Castle kind of guy. But the thought is, what if I’m losing it? Maybe my judgement is off. I am getting older and it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility that, like a U.S. president offering generous pardons as he (and tragically not she) concludes his term in office, I’ve become magnanimous. All of which is my diplomatic, if not entirely apologetic way of touting a film that many of my so-called colleagues have marginalized if not downright denigrated. Well, they’re all wrong. FAKE NEWS. Sad!
Besides….who’s to say that aliens from outer space didn’t hack into the bodies of the nation’s otherwise august film critics, causing them to file negative reviews of this amusing, insightful treatise on the life and times of an aging comedian? Truth is, Robert De Niro is aces as the title character, and that’s the honestly intended, George Washington, “I cannot tell a lie” truth as opposed to the gaslighting and spin-doctoring that’s been posing as governance of late. Reaching to the core of a comic who has seen better days, he grabs his spine and shakes him to life.
Filmmaker Hackford (“An Officer and A Gentleman” , “Dolores Claiborne”  ), seizing the occasion of this thespic national treasure proving he’s still got it, establishes a fine milieu for his comedian to emote, erupt, entertain and howl at convention. Bring all your stand-up comic preconceptions to the party, and give an extra mulling to the Pagliacci thing about laughing on the outside and crying on the inside. Except, this funnyman scowls on the outside while hinting that his inner sadness may be a bit more complicated and worthy of our curiosity.
Jackie Burke, nee Jacob Berkowitz, son of an iconic Manhattan deli man whose little brother, portrayed by Danny DeVito, still runs the eatery in Rego Park, Queens, is the only thing sadder than an angry young man…and that’s a bitter old man. Pushing 67, he once killed ‘em bigtime as Eddie the cop on a TV sitcom…the resultant typecasting a constant source of irritation. When a heckler at a comedy club with financially ulterior motives demands that Jackie only do Eddie, the ensuing donnybrook sends our comic to court and beyond. Thus our tale is set in motion.
Supplying a little bit of fantasy for gentlemen of a certain age, the community service Jackie must perform at a soup kitchen as a result of totally bombing in court has him meeting and becoming infatuated with the much younger Leslie Mann’s Harmony Schiltz. A kindred spirit in that she punched out someone, too, her relationship with Jackie forms the twists and turns that serve as the plot. While it’s a sad commentary that the May-September interaction wouldn’t be so farfetched if Jackie were a filthy rich, successful comedian, Miss Mann, by virtue of the Devil-may-care individualism she imbues her nonconformist firebrand with, makes it work.
None of this ebullience is to at all suggest that Mr. De Niro’s characterization of the problematic showman is artistically equivalent to something like Ralph Richardson’s James Tyrone in O’Neill’s tragic “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” But you very well know Bobby has always been capable of such hifalutin stuff, and following his spate of coffer-filling, analyze this-and-that portrayals to offset charitable expenses, his Jackie Burke puts us on notice. He hasn’t lost his fastball and, with Hoffman and Pacino, shares status as the male counterpart to Meryl Streep.
Mind you, we don’t necessarily like Jackie. He is irascible, and a little scandalous. More importantly, appreciating in him an inherent frustration that comes with being human, we hope that the ideas of grace and redemption are at least still available to him on a personal level, even if currently out of vogue in our society at large. Ethical values, whether told in tug-of-war terms or through pie-in-the-sky idealism, have more or less always survived throughout our movie history, and are there for the referencing just in case we dare decide to be good instead of great.
Hence, even when those we pick to serve the commonweal are outright laughable, I must think that, like “The Comedian,” deep down our fallible species longs to do the right thing.
“The Comedian,” rated R, is a Sony Pictures Classics release directed by Taylor Hackford and stars Robert De Niro, Leslie Mann and Danny De Vito. Running time: 120 minutes