You have to wonder what Robert De Niro wants to accomplish when he appears on Saturday Night Live, beyond promoting his latest movie and having a bit of fun without leaving Manhattan. Those may indeed be the only reasons he does SNL (he wouldn’t be the first host guilty of that), and he certainly wasn’t out to compete with Alec Baldwin or Steve Martin, or even Nov. 20’s Anne Hathaway, in inserting himself into this week’s sketches. There’s a cultural disconnect between De Niro and SNL: It doesn’t seem to mean as much to him as it does to other, more eager hosts. If he rarely dropped the granite-faced De Niro persona, he fared best whenever the show called for him to apply a costume and make-up.
Take, for instance, SNL‘s clever cold open this week. Melding WikiLeaks with the TMZ TV show — Bill Hader as Julian Assange as Harvey Levin — the shrewd mash-up included De Niro in a quick, funny turn as Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai, feebly denying corruption. And later in the show, De Niro got laughs simply by entering a sketch dressed in drag.
The night’s first fake commercial featured De Niro (in a wig, thus signaling a pretty good one) as bestselling author Harlan Kane, author of the new novel The Abacus Conundrum. It was an impeccable parody of schlocky schlock-suspense-novel advertising (“Lotta good words in here!”).
Near the end of the show, in one of SNL‘s everybody-at-home-is-falling-asleep-or-drunk-so-let’s-do-something-peculiar sketches, De Niro was effectively lecherous and eccentric as a white-bearded guy who demanded, and got, sex from bar patrons in return for drinks. Somewhere in between these two scenes was De Niro’s drag moment. He played the mother of a hapless rapper (Samberg). Diddy played himself, ogling De Niro. Sure, the star cracked himself up shamelessly, but the entire tableau was pretty amusing.
By now, the “What Up With That?” sketches are amusing to the degree that you can continue to enjoy its running jokes. For me, the silent-Lindsay-Buckingham idea is getting a bit weary, while Jason Sudeikis’ red-jump-suited dancing remains delightful. Maybe you have the opposite reaction; in any case, guests De Niro and Robin Williams didn’t add much, their twitching poker-faces bouncing off of host Kenan Thompson. Another dire De Niro-as-De Niro moment occurred when Bill Hader reprised his Italian talk-show host, Vinnie Vedecci, who tried to get De Niro to do impressions of himself. Hader was terrific at the pidgin-Italian as always, but the too-long, one-joke effort dragged.
But the biggest De Niro-playing-himself-ineffectually moment was a barren scene in which Bobby Moynihan played a rambunctious film fan delighted to meet everyone involved in the production of Little Fockers — including Ben Stiller, in the first of two cameo appearances. The punchline was that the kid was totally unimpressed with De Niro himself; the sketch was as flat as the commercial for Little Fockers itself that aired during SNL.
I was almost hoping that the “Mr. Produce” sketch, with De Niro slicing through rotting vegetables with a sharp knife, might at least end up an homage to Dan Aykroyd’s blood-spurting Julia Child classic, but it simply petered out as a clash between Mr. Produce and his sullen son (Andy Samberg).
The “Digital Short” was a Weekend at Bernie’s knock-off (“Party at Mr. Bernard’s”) with De Niro as the corpse hauled around by two party-boys (Bill Hader and Samberg).
Billed as Diddy-Dirty Money, Diddy, Dawn Richard, and Kalenna previewed two songs from their forthcoming album Last Train To Paris. The first song, “Coming Home,” with its lyric nods to old songs such as “Tears of a Clown” and “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now,” was the more engaging of the pair of performances.
“Weekend Update” was brightened by an appearance by the three Kardashian sisters, embodied by Abby Elliott, Nasim Pedrad, and Vanessa Bayer. They captured the irritating banality of these siblings wonderfully.
Nearly as good, for one joke at least, was Samberg as a Spider-Man actor from the troubled Broadway musical. Hanging upside-down, he tried to close in on anchor Seth Meyers for a Spidey-Mary Jane style kiss by imploring, “Hook up the smooch!”
The show in general felt pieced together with bits that might have been lying around for a few weeks to be burned off, such as the fake ad for a baldness cure using the patient’s pubic hair, and a brief cartoon, “I, Hippie,” featuring the voice of Dana Carvey and a woefully banal final punchline.
Under-used this week: Paul Brittain and Taran Killam — why can’t these guys get some decent air-time? They hover around the edges, bursting with promise that’s delivered whenever they’re given the opportunity. And if Jay Pharoah was onstage this night, I apologize for not noticing, but he should have had a showcase or two. You have to figure he could have done a killer Diddy impersonation at the very least, right?
Did you watch? Agree? Disagree?