AFI FEST 2016: ‘The Comedian’

Blame it on the way I was raised, by a mother who thought “hell” and “damn” were powerful enough swear words and a father who I can’t remember swearing. I’m sure I visibly cringed during Denis Leary’s funny presentation a year ago at San Diego Comic-Con. I can appreciate toilet humor, but more in line with the gentle Japanese children’s book by Tarō Gomi, “Minna Unchi” or as it was translated into English, “Everyone Poops.” These are reasons why, I am not the best person to review “The Comedian.”

Robert DeNiro’s character, Jackie Burke, is a man in the mold of Leary. You feel as if he’s being constrained and almost straight-jacketed by polite society that doesn’t appreciate sexual and toilet humor along with f-bombs liberally set off in between.

Jackie became nationally famous when he was much younger, playing the policeman father on a TV comedy series. He’s eager to disassociate himself with that character, particularly when the understanding father figure doesn’t easily co-exist with his aggressive, sexually explicit humor as a standup comedian, even at a TV show nostalgia gig.  This might make you think of Bob Saget (“Full House”), but Jackie is so much rougher around the edges he could scratch diamonds.

When a heckler attempts to make Jackie part of his own webisode series and refuses to let go of the mic, Jackie assaults him. To make matters worse, in court, Jackie refuses to give a more obsequious apology to the man and his wife. Jackie is sentenced to jail time and community service.

His manager (Edie Falco) sticks with him, but because of his worsening reputation and his parole requirements to stay within the state, Jackie is hard up for cash. He borrows from his estranged brother (Danny DeVito), and gets invited to his niece’s (Lucy DeVito) lesbian wedding, despite his sister-in-law Flo’s objections (Patti LuPone).

At the soup kitchen where he’s doing his service, he meets the much younger Harmony (Leslie Mann) who also has anger management and daddy issues. Harmony’s rich but sleazy father (Harvey Keitel) was a big fan of Jackie’s TV show. Eventually, they all meet and not everything goes well.

The jazzy soundtrack suggests the unpredictable flow of life, one without orchestrated heroics but rather easy-going acceptance between moments of dissonance. Jackie’s career is helped by the internet in unexpected ways, including a viral video of his reworking of the song “Makin’ Whoopie” to be more about geriatric constipation, “Makin’ Poopy.”

It’s hard for me to judge the success or failure of DeNiro’s performance as Jackie, either at his niece’s wedding of two brides or the retirement home. Someone who likes Amy Schumer’s “Milk Milk Lemonade” and Leary or regularly detonates f-bombs might be better poised to make that assessment.

The film was shot in 27 days and features a strong ensemble cast and cameos by real standup comedians. “The Comedian” made its world premiere at AFI Fest on Friday, Nov. 11 and will be released next year on Jan. 13.

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