“I always thought of the joke as a superior way of telling the truth.”—Emily Nussbaum, “New Yorker,” January 23, 2017
Robert DeNiro plays Jackie Burke, the title role comedian who is the embodiment of all frustrations associated with his chosen profession: It’s a craft more than an art, it’s a double helix where the comedian finds that he is both subject strand and object strand of rejection’s strong language. It’s viciously competitive, pays poorly, places you in harm’s way because the single perk of working in a comedy club is an open bar tab, sometimes the performer’s only compensation. In the club culture itself, drug dealers and bookies ply you with offers you can’t refuse, and you meet the people desperate to feature you in their life tragedies. Then there’s a Central Casting selection of fickle fan extras, there to remind you that, as a human being, you are only as good as your last standup routine. The talent that makes you funny feeds off your anger, disappointment and keen sensitivity to the grimmest of ironies. Even for an actor, playing a comedian imposes the schadenfreude burden of the legends who went before you: Charlie Chaplin, Red Foxx, Lenny Bruce, Victor Borge, and the current crop of A-list comedians, several of who appear or have cameos in this film. You develop a persona that is equal parts Pagliacci, Groucho Marx, Buster Keaton, Joan Rivers, Chris Rock, and Rodney Dangerfield. You get bum-rushed on the one hand; on the other, no respect.
In the be-careful-what-you-wish-for category, you might get a sitcom with high ratings. That’s what happened to Jackie Burke, né Burkowitz, and he’ll never live it down. Long after “Eddie’s Home” has stopped generating residuals, and the only gig that Miller (Edie Falco), Jackie’s agent, can get for him is pre-fabbed in the mid-Long Island suburb of Hicksville. There, fans of a certain age (Jackie’s) beg him to “do” the Eddie line that made him famous, instead of the monologue he assiduously crafted just for them. They call him Eddie instead of Jackie, and correcting them each time makes him seem peevish. If he didn’t like Eddie in Eddie’s heyday, we meet him when he’s liking him—and Jackie—even less. When it all gets out of hand, and a contre-temps ensues that sends Jackie to jail, he finds himself doing community service at a homeless shelter.
It’s a plot we’ve seen before, and so the role usually nabbed by Meg Ryan or Kate Hudson or nowadays, Zoe Saldana Greta Gerwig, or Shailene Woodley, the reluctant slightly damaged, but nonetheless open-hearted, much younger, para-homicidal love interest, Harmony Schiltz, is played according to the book by Leslie Mann. If Jackie goes all charmer, she plays hard to get; if he’s churlish, she’s right there on task to give his endorphins a boost. Jackie has to borrow money from his brother Jimmy (Danny DeVito), and to keep peace between Jimmy and Jimmy’s disparaging wife Florence, played with steely rectitude by Patti LuPone, Jackie promises to attend the wedding of his niece Brittany’s (Lucy DeVito) to her lesbian fiancée.
Harmony has troubles of her own that mostly collect around her overprotective semi-mobster father Mac Schiltz (Harvey Keitel), who, dressed-for-success in a mid-century kind of way, works hard to make his obsession to dominate his daughter’s life look effortless. He’s a longtime fan of “Eddie’s Home,” and Eddie, in particular. Jackie and Harmony’s meet while fulfilling their community service detail at a homeless shelter, Harmony agrees to a date with Jackie on the condition that Jackie act as her date when she goes to dinner with her father on his birthday. Jackie’s Eddie is Harmony’s birthday present to her father. Predictably, it all blows up, Harmony ditches Jackie to follow her father’s plan for her to finish her community service in Florida. In the meantime, several of Jackie’s most anti-social outbursts are recorded and converted to viral-going YouTubes. The sky-rocketing number of hits he gets causes his stock to surge with a reality TV channel that has been “looking” at his material. When he tells them what they can do with their plan for him, the number of hits he gets goes even higher, carrying him back into the limelight, and his path once again crosses with Harmony’s. The ending isn’t as happy, bittersweet, or funny, as it’s supposed to be. It’s as if the writers had lost interest when the jokes stopped inventing themselves, and frankly, the audience will too.
When DeNiro plays comic roles, it tends to feel as if he does so reluctantly, and that he, like all wise actors, uses what comes up for him to lend an ambivalent edge to the character. It’s what he did in “Meet the Parents,” and its sequel, “Meet the Fokkers,” and it has worked well for him in all three films. Still, it is an ever-present reminder that as novel as it may feel to hear him delivering punchlines, an actor of such caliber deserves weightier work, where he is not Little Jack Horner, forced to stick his thumb in the mediocre culture of years-old celebrity pie, to pull out a plum that was produced by singing out toilet jokes on the set of a Florida assisted living compound.