What’s New York?
“A pastrami on rye with a Dr. Brown’s at Katz,” my father instructs, while walking his two Standard Schnauzers in the paludal heat of South Florida. At nearly 70 years old, it’s been over 50 years since he’s lived in the city, though he still remains a proud survivor of what’s since been labeled The Old New York. He grew up in the city’s historic post-WWII neighborhood Stuyvesant Town — or “Stuy Town” — with its 56 red-brick buildings, 11,250 close-knit apartments, and its exclusive Town & Village newspaper, a setting that’s been shared by NPR’s Robert Siegel, Angela’s Ashes author Frank McCourt, novelist Mary Higgins Clark, The New York Times’ David Brooks, and even actor Paul Reiser. It was an area that housed predominately Jewish families, those who stressed education and the arts within its walled-in confines, all in a very different time.
My father’s memories of New York are long-storied traditions that have, sadly, become cliches. A trip to Katz is the near-equivalent of walking around Times Square and asking passersby if Cats is still on Broadway. The thing is, they’re his roots, and so many New Yorkers over the years have turned these forever-cherished memories into institutions, celebrated by tourists and (perhaps in secrecy) citizens, too. What so many fail to acknowledge is that New York City is more than any one generation; instead, it’s a constant force that’s become the nation’s true capital and one of the world’s most influential cities. It’s a mecca to those looking to do, and as a result, its eyes are always forward — even if there are several moments of navel gazing.
In the last decade and a half, New York City has become something new altogether. Its post-9/11 days have moved the metropolis beyond the imagery set by Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, and even former Mayor Rudy Giuliani to something far more self-aware, so much so that there’s hardly a neighborhood or burrough that’s not qualified as a fitting panel in the always-rewarding New York Magazine and the reliably stuffy The New Yorker. The mystery has been capitalized by Disney, re-examined by Louis C.K., fantasized by Vampire Weekend, inked over by Marvel Comics, parodied by NBC, and the list goes on. It’s a new sophistication for a city that’s always had it, led by a generation of cosmopolitans who are changing its face through the construction of au courant institutions that pay credence to the old.
That’s why Taylor Hackford’s The Comedian feels more like a last gasp than a last laugh. Written by veteran producer-screenwriter Art Linson and The Roastmaster General himself Jeffrey Ross — with an assist by Richard LaGravenese and Lewis Friedman — the story follows an aging, frustrated New York comic named Jackie Burke (Robert De Niro), who has struggled to reinvent himself after playing the titular role in a ’70s TV sitcom called Eddie’s Home. (Think All in the Family’s Archie Bunker meets Married… with Children’s Al Bundy meets Jackie Brown’s Louis Gara). Jackie’s problem is that nobody cares about his stand-up; they just want to hear the same ol’ catchphrases — they want him to be Eddie. He doesn’t like that very much, as evidenced by an early tussle with a crowd member, which lands him 30 days in the Nassau Correctional Center.
It’s time well served as Jackie leaves the hell hole with a purpose — not to mention, you know, 100 court-mandated community service hours to complete. Because of his parole, he can’t leave New York City, and as his agent (Edie Falco, minor but memorable) soberly explains, the Big Apple doesn’t do a whole lotta business for him. But that’s okay because he has a sturdy (and very star-studded) family tree to lean upon. His brother Ben (Danny DeVito) owns a popular delicatessen with his own wife, Flo (Patti LuPone), and he helps him pay off his court fees. This leaves Jackie with a quasi-blank slate to work from, and naturally, he gets a boost of self-esteem after he starts working at a church and meets a struggling woman named Harmony Schiltz (Leslie Mann). “Were your parents a Nazi barbershop quartet?” he jokes to her, and the two more or less hit it off.
If you’ve seen enough dramedies, you know where this goes: It’s a comeback tale where the stakes are high, but never too far removed from any nearby ladders. But really, that’s not the problem with The Comedian. What really hurts the film is its messy screenplay and boilerplate direction. Despite being a hefty 120 minutes, the film struggles to contain its story, namely because it never knows when to quit, which is quite ironic given that it’s a film about a comic with impeccable comedic timing. Blame it on too many cooks in the kitchen — or rather, ahem, the deli — but this story comes pretzeled with only a dollop of mustard. What could have been a pleasant meditation on a forgotten era of New York, told through the guise of an unlikely love story, becomes this unwieldy narrative that plays out like a predictable CBS series, complete with all the episodic melodrama.
Even more perplexing is how The Comedian can’t stick to its own principles. It’s very hard to stomach a story about an aging comic attempting to buck nostalgia when the film’s so intrinsically tied to it. Discussions oscillate between “It ain’t like it used to be” to “I’m not that person anymore” on the flip of the dime, and they’re mostly played out through storied New York institutions such as Estee Adoram’s Comedy Cellar or the elusive Friar’s Club. (To be fair, the film does make some notable strides to keep things refreshingly authentic, thanks to cameos by Hannibal Buress, Jim Norton, Nick Di Paolo, among others.) Rightfully so, the film wears its New York pride like a badge of honor — hell, it’s no coincidence that De Niro is paired against his former Mean Streets/Taxi Driver rival Harvey Keitel — it’s just all a little too dusty to sell its own messages, and that’s an issue.
It’s also unfortunate because the A-list cast totally brings its A-game. Now, in recent years, De Niro has made it pretty, pretty … pretty easy to forget that he can still own the silver screen, what with his thankless roles in fodder like Grudge Match, Dirty Grandpa, and the unforgivable Little Fockers. But in reality, the guy is actually one of the few actors from his generation who can still churn out a vital performance, and The Comedian is one of his stronger moments outside of working with David O. Russell. (Odds are he’ll never ever top this scene from Silver Linings Playbook.) Although the conceit of this film at face value seems to be one long callback to Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, De Niro winds up relishing every moment as Jackie, nailing that old-school brand of New York humor that’s curiously both timeless and of a time. His scenes on stage are worth every moment.
He’s not alone, though. Mann, who has recently been flexing her muscles in Judd Apatow’s dramedies, rises above the source material, embellishing her character, Harmony, with a layer of pathos that’s too manic to feel unnatural. It’s very hard to crack De Niro’s shell on any screen — go ask hapless boy wonder Jimmy Fallon, who invited the star on his first episode of Late Night way, way back in 2009 — but she cuts through with ease. Their time together, at least initially before the aforementioned melodrama kicks in, is weirdly charming, recalling the tit-for-tat banter between Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino in Garry Marshall’s Frankie and Johnny. Even though the dialogue confines them to endless jokes and debates about age, there’s a youthful cadence to their chemistry that makes you wish they were given a far more intriguing story to act out. Oh well.
It all goes back to New York. While Hackford basically phones it in behind the camera, there’s little denying the comfortability of seeing some of the city’s greatest landmarks and icons bump into one another, and that’s a quirk of the metropolis that will always be a part of its DNA. Reason being, New York is built upon history, and while it’s forever racing into tomorrow, it’s always informed by those who propped it up, and The Comedian collects a who’s who of icons that did a lot of the heavy lifting. Billy Crystal stops by, Charles Grodin eats up the scenery, and even Cloris Leachman tosses out some barbs. At some point, you start to feel like you’re not even watching a movie anymore but scanning through the old autographed photos that once lined the walls of Carnegie Deli. “Once” being the keyword there as the institution closed its iconic doors late last year.
Chew on that for a bit.