Whether in his popular stand-up or his celebrated FX series Louie, Louis C.K.’s comedy has always been confessional. Yet following the 2017 allegations of sexual misconduct that derailed his career, exposure has been the last thing anyone wants from C.K.—especially given that his final pre-cancellation work, the never-released feature I Love You, Daddy, was a distasteful movie-business satire about predatory pedophilic Hollywood types that aimed to let its maker off the hook for his repellent behavior. Though he’s recently released a couple of tour specials, C.K. now resides on the Hollywood fringe, a pariah whose inner thoughts and feelings, having been revealed as ugly and unkind, no longer seem like welcome fodder for jokey material.
Like Woody Allen, whose Manhattan was an inspiration for I Love You Daddy, C.K. has been undone by not only gross real-world conduct but the fact that his artistic life is predicated on autobiographical authenticity. Thus, his latest feature directorial outing, Fourth of July—which is receiving a scattered theatrical release beginning July 1—doesn’t revolve around its author, who only pops up in two brief scenes as a therapist. Instead, its focus is comedian Joe List, who co-wrote its script with C.K. and whose own experiences appear to be the basis for its tale about a young New Yorker wrestling with anxieties that come to a head during an Independence Day weekend at a remote family cabin with his extended New England clan.
List looks nothing like C.K. but Fourth of July is basically his own personal version of Louie, replete with handheld camerawork rooted in ’70s devices (slow zooms, pans alongside characters on city sidewalks) and a score full of jazzy horns, bass, drums, and piano. List’s character Jeff is actually a jazz pianist who plays in a band with his AA sponsor Bill (Bill Scheft), and music is his escape from his hectic day-to-day turmoil. The root cause of Jeff’s troubles is his mother (Paula Plum), whom he can barely speak to on the phone while driving without thinking that he’s run over a pedestrian—an imaginary notion that C.K.’s shrink astutely points out is a manifestation of Jeff’s underlying maternal issues. Those problems have also put a strain on Jeff’s marriage to Beth (Sarah Tollemache), both because his mom hates his wife and because Jeff’s dysfunctional upbringing has caused him to fear becoming a father, much to Beth’s discontent.
Jeff is a head case, as illustrated by a trip to the dentist during which he swears that something is wrong with the side of his face despite copious X-ray evidence to the contrary. His burdens are multiplied when Bill saddles him with his own AA sponsee, Bobby (Robert Kelly), who mocks Jeff’s bumper-sticker platitudes (“Keep a little gratitude in your attitude”). Most pressing of all, however, is the looming July 4th get-together that his family throws each year. Determined to heed his therapist’s advice and truly suffer so he can find the motivation to change, Jeff heads to Maine alone, ready to finally articulate his bottled-up grievances to Mom as well as Dad (Robert Walsh), a quiet, sullen zombie who shuffles around the periphery of the action, too glum and passive to open his mouth save for the occasional perfunctory word.
Fourth of July has the laid-back feel of C.K.’s television gem, capturing his urban and rural milieus, Jeff’s neuroses, and his relatives’ boorish awfulness via quick, casual, gentle gestures. Jeff’s family is a dysfunctional lot dominated by nasty and unloving Mom, beaten-down Dad, and toxic-macho uncle Kevin (Nick Di Paolo) and Tony (Tony Viveiros), who spend most of their time making bawdy Michael Jackson jokes and spraying homophobic slurs in Jeff’s direction. Less unpleasant are Jeff’s younger uncle Mark (Chris Walsh), his childhood drinking buddy, and his cousin’s guest Naomi (Tara Pacheco), who’s welcomed into this low-class environment with cringe-y comments about her Blackness. To employ a term that they would probably use themselves, they’re stereotypical cursing-fighting-drinking Massholes, abrasively mocking the sensitive Jeff for his big-city life, his fondness for jazz, and his refusal to get hammered.
List and C.K.’s story comes across as an honest fictionalized expression of the former’s individual and familial ordeals, but what Fourth of July lacks is a single laugh-out-loud moment. Jeff is too much of a wounded sad-sack to come up with a sharp one-liner, and the random attempts at absurdist adult repartee—such as Jeff and Beth having a back-and-forth about whether she’ll sleep with someone when Jeff is gone—feel out of place and land with a thud. The meek and sullen List isn’t much of a presence, failing to make Jeff a figure worth caring about. Even when he finally says his piece, he—and the film itself—proves too slight to generate a powerful sense of catharsis, and the ensuing post-confrontation proceedings are of a leaden variety, with Jeff turned into an outcast who must invariably grapple with the ramifications of his outburst.
In the final tally, List’s hang-ups are neither as engaging, nor as amusingly addressed, as C.K.’s were in his own prior work. Jeff heals by coming to a greater understanding of himself, his desires, and his family, who screwed him up and drive him mad but remain important because they’re his, and the way in which Fourth of July allows him to damn and then forgive them feels a lot like the sort of amnesty C.K. wants for himself. Though C.K. embodies the voice of logical, level-headed reason, his real on-screen proxies are Jeff’s relatives, each of whom—from defeated Dad, to cruel and aggrieved Mom, to profane and politically incorrect Kevin and Tony—registers as a different aspect of the comedian’s personality. That, in turn, casts the film as a subtle reflection of where C.K. is today, cognizant of his shortcomings and yet nonetheless desperate for others to absolve him of his sins without having to atone for them first. Unfortunately, while Jeff may feel free at the conclusion of his Independence Day weekend, it’s hard to see Fourth of July providing its director with the liberation he apparently covets.