Mario Puzo, author of the novel that would form the basis for Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy, once famously said of Robert De Niro: “He can’t do Shakespeare, and he can’t do comedy.” Look to De Niro’s output this century and you’d be inclined to agree. While he’s never even attempted Shakespeare, in the last couple of decades De Niro has eased off on the drama and increasingly settled into sleepwalking through middling-to-bad comedies. A list of the very worst offenders reads like something befitting Adam Sandler, not a two-time Academy Award winner and possible Greatest Actor of All Time: The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle, Meet the Fockers, Shark Tale, Little Fockers, New Year’s Eve, The Big Wedding, The Family, Grudge Match, Dirty Grandpa…
Now we can add to that list The Comedian, Taylor Hackford’s comic-drama about a burned-out standup played by De Niro, which is currently on wide release and is earning its star his now customary poor notices. David Sims of The Atlantic’s observation that De Niro is “coasting, as he so often has in recent years…no doubt another [mediocre comedy] is just around the corner” sums up the general feeling for De Niro’s late-career focus on comedy. Back when he was Scorsese’s muse and hoovering up awards for the likes of The Godfather Part II and The Deer Hunter, De Niro was essential; now his very involvement in a movie is a red flag, with the comedies in particular promising not the giant of American cinema, but an actor for whom the salary has become the motivation.
Opinion wasn’t always so sniffy regarding De Niro’s comedic work. It was in comedy where he got his break: back when hardly anyone was paying attention to either’s career, De Niro started out making low budget comedies with Brian De Palma. It just so happens that when De Niro began a serious comedy ‘comeback’ in the late ‘90s, he did so at a time when he had appeared to stop caring about the quality of his performances full-stop. If the broad consensus is that De Niro is a sub-par comic, then, it might be because the past 20 years of his career have pummeled us into forgetting just how accomplished he has been, as comedian, dramatist or otherwise.
At his peak, De Niro was elastic. In one year he could play both a hyperactive low-level crook causing trouble in Little Italy and a dim-witted Georgia baseball pro quietly dying of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and in the next take the part of a ruthless Sicilian immigrant with ambitions of becoming a New York Mafia don. Puzo was right that De Niro never seemed like a good fit for the Bard, but through his best roles of the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, De Niro was seemingly on a mission to prove he could do almost everything else – including various styles of comedy.
There was screwball with New York, New York, cringe comedy with The King of Comedy, surreal comedy with Brazil, the buddy movie with Midnight Run and satire with Wag the Dog. All are classics or near-classics of the genre, and De Niro is effective in every one, not in spite of his method intensity but often because of it. He can deliver one-liners well enough (see Midnight Run for the best of these), but it’s De Niro’s very unpredictability, utilized to uncomfortable effect across dramas like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, that is so often also the key to his comedic power.
In New York, New York, jazz musician Jimmy Doyle’s bipolar nature informs some bold physical comedy and manic improvisational patter from De Niro. In Midnight Run, in between the amusing back-and-forths his bounty hunter Jack Walsh has with Charles Grodin’s white collar criminal Jonathan Mardukas, De Niro’s given to apoplectic rages at odds with Jack’s otherwise cool demeanor. In Meet the Parents, the film which along with Analyze This kickstarted De Niro’s current love affair with comedy, there is the constant suggestion that De Niro’s straight-laced, ex-CIA patriarch could drop the mundane facade and go postal on Ben Stiller’s prospective son-in-law at any minute.
As good as he has been in straight comedy, some of De Niro’s most memorably funny moments have often come outside of the genre, in ostensibly more ‘serious’ fare: in Goodfellas as sociopathic gangster Jimmy Conway, brutally choking wig salesman Morrie with a telephone cord, knocking Morrie’s own hairpiece off in the process; in Cape Fear as ex-convict Max Cady, seducing a pubescent girl over the phone, as he hangs upside down from a chin-up bar; in Jackie Brown as bumbling thief Louis Gara, awkwardly confessing to partner-in-crime Ordell (Samuel L Jackson) that he shot Ordell’s surfer girl squeeze Melanie simply because she was agitating him. What these moments have in common is that they straddle the line between comical and horrifying. They depict extreme scenarios that only an actor as skilled as De Niro could sell not as straight-up disturbing, but as the blackest of black comedy.
Another commonality, of course, is that these movies all happened a long time ago. The Comedian has been mentioned in the same breath as The King of Comedy, another film that stars De Niro as a self-loathing stand-up, but the difference between the two is vast. The latter found Martin Scorsese and some prime (not to mention satisfyingly prescient) material encouraging an effete, hysterically self-effacing De Niro to craft one of cinema’s most despicable comic creations; the former, directed by Taylor Hackford and written by what appears to be far too many cooks, doesn’t ask De Niro to do anything other than coast.
There have been recent exceptions, like Silver Linings Playbook, that prove De Niro in the right situation can still be an effective comedian, but the actor is 73 and has become comfortable with taking the paycheck gigs. The Comedian is the best kind of comedy we’re going to get from De Niro these days. And maybe it doesn’t matter. Most of De Niro’s funniest movies are a long ways in the past, but not even Dirty Grandpa can take from him Rupert Pupkin, Jack Walsh, or any of the exceptional comic performances he gave in better days. No amount of modern failures can cancel out the fact that, in the field of comedy, De Niro has already shown himself capable of genius.