The title offers the first clue about what's off. Calling this movie The Comedian suggests that Robert De Niro will be playing something definitive or archetypal, as if there's just one kind of stand-up comic, as if he's representing a genus rather than embodying someone singular. A glut of other projects -- sitcoms and movies and podcasts -- could share the name. Tell a friend you've bought a ticket to see The Comedian, and unless you're De Niro that friend will ask which one?
De Niro's playing a type, the prickly prick whose mind processes any input it's given into rote dick jokes. Taylor Hackford's movie mistakes that weary habit for a rare talent, and the audiences De Niro's comic performs for erupt into joyous, scandalized laughter. They can't believe he's noticed that the microphone is shaped like a penis!
Hackford's film, a no-stakes episodic hangout character study, offers few fresh insights into the comedy mind. There aren't a lot of laughs, either, which is a problem when there are so many scenes of stand-up. De Niro gives a committed performance, and he's compelling in scenes of bickering and uncertainty, especially when he has strong acting partners: Leslie Mann as the viciously charismatic younger woman with whom his comic inevitably gets entangled; Danny DeVito as the brother from whom he bums money; Edie Falco as the off-the-wall manager who can only find him gigs on Long Island; and Billy Crystal, briefly, as a Friars Club pal and rival. In these moments De Niro's Jackie Burke becomes specific and interesting, a frustrating man who none of these people can quite dismiss.