Rated R. Running time: 2 hours.
Our content ratings: Violence 1; Language 7; Sex/Nudity 6.
Our star rating (1-5): 3
But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.
In director Taylor Hackford’s latest film Robert De Niro plays insult comedian Jackie Burke. Once widely adored as the star of a TV sitcom called “Eddie’s Home,” he is now relegated to the circuit of small stand-up comedy clubs where he constantly pushes back against those who accept him only as Eddie, even calling him that when asking for his autograph or asking him to repeat his signature line. The film’s theme is a good one, but Jackie is so misanthropic and foul-minded that I found it hard to like him.
Jacki’s sad life takes a turn for the worst when he assaults an obnoxious fan filming his act. Learning that the jerk intends to use the clip on his podcast, Jackie slams into the guy. He is sentenced to do community service at a soup kitchen, where he meets Harmony (Leslie Mann), also sentenced there for not controlling her temper. Much younger than he, the two nonetheless become a couple, even though a meeting with her snake of a father (played by Harvey Keitel) goes hilariously wrong.
His younger brother and sister-in-law, Jimmy and Florence Berkowitz (Danny DeVito and Patti LuPon), run a delicatessen, where Jackie shows up whenever he needs money. Florence loathes him as much as Jimmy adores him, and when Jackie, with Harmony in tow, shows up at their daughter Brittany’s wedding and gives in to the girl’s pleas to do a stand-up gig, the mother has reason to loath him all the more. His off-color invective would have been better suited for a whore house than a wedding. The same can be said later, when Harmony breaks up with him and goes to Florida to work at her father’s retirement resort: Jackie shows up and does a schtick that is as crude as it is cruel, though as many of the old people laugh as take offense. (The former must have been starved for entertainment!)
Those expecting this De Niro role to be as good as the one he played in The King of Comedy might be as disappointed as I was. Insult comedy is a dangerous art, easily degenerating into an unequal power struggle, the person holding the mic wielding the power to humiliate his target in the audience. When performed by a master, such as Don Rickles at a celebrity roast, it is a different matter. Everyone knows that Rickles is really a soft-hearted guy who does not mean literally the insults—plus his targets were always figures, celebrities, of equal stature. Rickles once said, “If I were to insult people and mean it, that wouldn’t be funny.” Jackie does mean it. He is the kind of person whom Jesus put on notice in his teaching about murder and retaliation. For Jackie, comedy is a form of murdering those who upset him.
There are some funny moments in the film—how could there not be with the above cast, plus Billy Crystal, Charles Grodin, Nick Di Paolo, Cloris Leachman, Jimmie Walker, a stage full of other comedians in cameo roles, and a too underused Edie Falco as Jackie’s manager. That’s a lot of talent for a second-rate film!
This review with a set of questions will be in the March 2017 issue of VP.