De Niro's “The Comedian” is unknown for a reason

As I was grabbing a beer while killing time before the press screening for “The Comedian,” I mentioned I was there for a new Robert De Niro movie about an aging comedian.

Both the bartender and a nearby couple had the same reaction: “Never heard of it.”

It's a little telling that a starring role for De Niro — with a really solid slate of names in support — is flying under the radar. February is when studios release movies that never lived up to their high hopes, and it's easy to see why with this one.

Jackie Burke (De Niro) is an insult comic trying to maintain a fledgling career that is too deeply tied to his past role on a “Honeymooners”-like sitcom for his own liking.

His agent (Edie Falco) books him on a “Sitcom Nostalgia Night” slate of comics, but Jackie gets physical with a heckler, landing him a short prison sentence and some community service.

Working in a homeless shelter, he meets Harmony (Leslie Mann), who is also performing community service, despite her real estate mogul dad (Harvey Keitel) trying to pull some strings so she can join him in Florida.

They begin an unlikely romance that follows the ups and downs of Jackie's attempts at rekindling his career.

Obviously, De Niro hasn't played a stand-up comedian since Martin Scorsese's 1983 film “The King of Comedy,” and, just as obviously, that's going to be a pretty unfair comparison. Still, there's a reason why you didn't hear about this movie around Oscar time.

Director Taylor Hackford (“The Devil's Advocate”) works from a script with the red flag of four credited screenwriters (including, notably, insult comic Jeffrey Ross). The “too many cooks” syndrome becomes apparent in the episodic, uneven nature of “The Comedian.”

As for his biting stand-up routines, De Niro doesn't have that natural timing of a trained stand-up comic — and the real comedians making appearances highlight that. Still, he gets some laughs just in being a classic Bobby D character.

Probably the weakest link in the movie is the cross-generation romance at its core, which never really gels. There are some moments worth seeing, just based on the talent onscreen (Danny DeVito, Charles Grodin, Cloris Leachman and many more).

But it's mostly a misfire, hence the relative obscurity.