Almost 20 years ago, back in 1999, Robert De Niro transitioned into what we should deem the comedic re-imagining of his career, starring opposite Billy Crystal in Analyze This, as a mob boss struggling with insecurity who seeks the counsel of a psychiatrist. De Niro and Crystal re-upped three years later with Analyze That. In between, he doubled down by teaming with Ben Stiller in Meet the Parents, a romantic comedy with physical hijinks front and center that spawned a couple of sequels that seemed intent on transforming De Niro into a comic punching bag.
Are we supposed to believe this is what happens when a legend lives past their prime, beyond the epic moments that have come to define them?
The arrival of Taylor Hackford’s The Comedian, at first glance, feels like just another nail in the coffin, a broad and likely quite scattered shot aimed at De Niro’s aging mug. His Jack Burke is a 60-something insult comic attempting to move on past an earlier role on a hit sitcom that he hasn’t been able to shake. Burke still hustles to the comedy clubs, despite the fact that he knows every audience will undoubtedly include some begging him to do the old character shtick.
De Niro deftly captures the seething anger and frustration in Burke’s exchanges with his agent (Edie Falco), his brother (Danny DeVito) and sister-in-law (Patti LuPone), and the parade of comedians, both fictional and real life (Billy Crystal, Hannibal Buress, and Jimmie Walker). But what elevates The Comedian from his recent string of laughers is that the material doesn’t demand that De Niro demean himself. He’s not begging for appreciation. Although not exactly in his wheelhouse, the stand-up routines allow De Niro to play to his natural strength: the drama.
The Comedian over-reaches a bit in its pitch to make Burke a YouTube sensation for his outrageous antics. But when it gets something right – the unleashing of that classic De Niro rage against man and the machine – it does with minor-key echoes of the greatness of days gone by. (Opens Friday) (R) CityBeat grade: B