When Louis CK tried to resume his career after his sexual misconduct scandal, he did so cautiously by performing unannounced sets at small comedy clubs. He is essentially doing the same thing with his return to filmmaking. This low-budget indie dramedy being released in a few movie theaters (as of now, it’s not slated to be shown by any of the bigger chains) reveals that the controversial comic works in an unusually muted way. Lacks the biting edge of his brilliant work on the sitcom Louie and web series Horace and Piet† Fourth of July turns out to be something we never expected from the director/co-writer – bland.
In part, this seems to be due to his teaming up with comedian Joe List, who wrote the screenplay, executive produced and stars in the lead role of Jeff, a recovering alcoholic and anxious jazz pianist. CK only appears in a few scenes as Joe’s therapist, a bit of casting that feels ironic given his problems.
Fourth of July
It comes down to
No return to glory.
Inspired by List’s own experiences, the film begins by revealing the myriad personal issues that plague Jeff’s life, some of which come to the fore during a therapy session in which he frustratedly says to his psychiatrist, “You suck! You are the worst therapist!” He has been sober for three years and is married to Beth (comedian Sarah Tollemache, List’s real husband) who suffers from her unfulfilled desire to have children. Finally, barely able to solve his own problems, Jeff is recruited by his AA sponsor (Bill Scheft) to serve as a sponsor for Bobby (Robert Kelly), an emotionally demanding fellow musician.
Encouraged by his therapist to confront his unresolved emotional issues with his parents, Jeff travels alone to their annual Fourth of July celebration at their lake house, in the presence of numerous extended family members. Things don’t start well: Prompted by his mom (Paula Plum) to say something when he begins to buzz and mourn a serious conversation with her and his dad, he blurts out that he felt unloved growing up and that they are the cause of his problems. And then things get worse when she soon humiliates him by mocking his neediness in front of everyone else.
This kind of dysfunctional family gatherings are the stuff of endless autobiographical dramas, saddle up Fourth of July with a familiar feel, exacerbated by the lack of crisp dialogue and well-drawn characterizations. The proceedings consist mainly of bickering, with the always dour Jeff dealing with numerous annoying relatives, including his annoying Uncle Kevin (Nick Di Paolo), who finds it funny to rip Jeff’s shorts during a volleyball game, and his Uncle Mark. (Chris Walsh), who is only two years older because his father is Jeff’s grandfather. He does find some comfort in the company of the vivacious Naomi (Tara Pacheco), a recently widowed colleague of one of his cousins.
It doesn’t take long for the countless scenes in which the family members behave rudely become repetitive. The intended dramatic moments, like Jeff’s apparently emotionally closed-off father (Robert Walsh) suddenly revealing surprising depths, don’t quite materialize. And a pizzeria encounter in which Jeff miraculously overcomes his fatherhood doubts with a brief pep talk isn’t exactly convincing.
The film feels like it must have been personally therapeutic for its star and co-writer, but List never manages to relate us to his character’s perpetual navel-gazing. And while he’s necessarily hindered by playing someone who suffers from depression, his monochromatic deadpan performance turns out to be more annoying than involved.
CK has populated the film with some of his fellow comedians, who occasionally garner some mild laughs with their raw asides, but real humor is scarce. If this undeniably talented multi-hyphenate really wanted to impress with his first movie since the unreleased? I love you, daddyperhaps he should have delved into his own psyche instead.