Anybody hoping to put Louis C.K.’s “issues” and cancellation out of their minds when watching his new film will be sorely disappointed, as there he is, right in the opening scene and playing a therapist, no less.
He’s not the star of “Fourth of July,” just a bit player. But he co-wrote it with comic Joe List, and he directed it. Seeing as how C.K.’s other films as writer-director were “Pootie Tang” and “I Love You, Daddy,” which was abandoned by its fourth-tier distributor when his sexual abuse scandal blew up and shut-down his career, perhaps shying away from the spotlight would have been the smarter play.
Then again, notoriety sells. Ask any Kardashian.
So here Louis Louis is, leaning into the public shunning (by “polite society,” not by his all-forgiving fans), right from the get-go. The movie? It’s not “atonement” for C.K.’s s sins or a stark reminder of “the genius we lost” when he was cancelled. It’s a serious “meh,” squishy and sentimental — like a Woody Allen (cough cough) rough draft, with lots more swearing.
List plays a Manhattan jazz pianist with some serious mommy issues to break down with his therapist.
“I don’t want to talk about it!”
“Then maybe we should.”
Nebbishy Jeff is married, plays in a popular jazz quartet and is two-years-and-change sober. His sponsor (longtime Letterman writer Bill Scheft) figures it’s time Jeff took on an AA “sponsee,” somebody just deciding to get sober.
“Either lean in, take the next step, or lean back and fall down a flight of stairs…Take the next right action.”
Jeff’s new sponsee (Bobby Shelton) is a drummer, a month sober and not into this newbie “speaking in bumper stickers” as advice. But they give it a try.
And then there’s the happy life at home, where Jeff and his wife (Sarah Tollemache) are dreading the annual July 4 trip to Maine to hang out with his family. But the scar tissue of this marriage — Jeff’s issues with his parents — might not be the seat of wife Beth’s unhappiness. Nothing for it but for our nebbish to motor north and finally “confront” the folks he’s told his therapist he would confront many times before.
A sober alcoholic hanging with a bunch of drunks. What says “family” and “our nation’s birthday” better than that?
What ensues is a day or two of dysfunction, none of it all that novel, only some of it funny and only in a bittersweet way.
The family dynamic here has its obvious characters with “toxic” tattooed on their foreheads and “tactless” in their DNA. Mom (Paula Plum) is a braying bully, dad (Robert Walsh) something of a shrinking violet, and everybody else is several degrees better or worse on the spectrum.
His mother bum-rushes Jeff into having “the talk” he tells them they need to have, and Mom promptly betrays that trust and exposes Jeff to endless family ridicule and recriminations. Homophobes, beer-guts and MAGAs, they literally gang up on him.
Stranger Naomi (Tara Pacheco) is here, as a witness and an innocent. Jeff’s one relatable relative is his close-in-age Uncle Mark (Chris Walsh) who helps explain things to her.
“We were drinking buddies since we were 10 (Jeff) and 12 (Mark). The quitter!”
The cast might have been the best they could manage, considering C.K.’s pariah status. The only “name” in the ensemble, aside from him, is veteran comic Allan Havey, currently on TV’s “Billions.”
List may be convincing enough at the keyboard and competent with a line, especially a funny one, whether spoken or reacted to.
“You’re the WORST therapist. I’m suffering here!”
“Maybe you’re not suffering enough.”
But List lacks acting polish or the charisma to be an arresting screen presence. A funnier script might have minimized that. It kept Woody Allen on the screen for decades, after all.
There’s promising if timeworn material here — the jazz milieu, the AA routine, the toxic parents, the jerkiest cousin (Nick De Paolo) of them all. But there’s no pop to the picture, no compelling answer to the question, “OK, why is this a movie?”
One gets the feeling that C.K’s track record of marketing his stand-up specials and the like directly to his fans is the main reason “Fourth of July” was made. As his Kardashian role models showed him, scandal or no scandal, content is content as long as it’ll sell.
Rating: unrated, profanity, smoking, alcohol abuse
Cast: Joe List, Paula Plum, Sarah Tollemache, Nick De Paolo, Chris Walsh, Tara Pacheco, Bill Scheft, Robert Kelly, Allan Havey and Louis C. K.
Credits: Directed by Louis C.K., scripted by Joe List and Louis C.K. An Abramorama release.
Running time: 1:32