When Louis C.K. attempted to restart his career after his sexual misconduct scandal, he did it gingerly by performing unannounced sets in small comedy clubs. He’s essentially doing the same thing with his return to filmmaking. This low-budget indie dramedy being released in a smattering of movie theaters (as of now, it’s not scheduled to be screened by any of the larger chains) reveals the controversial comic working in an uncharacteristically muted fashion. Lacking the acerbic edge of his brilliant work on the sitcom Louie and web series Horace and Pete, Fourth of July turns out to be something we would have never expected from its director/co-writer — bland.
Partly this seems because he’s working in collaboration with comedian Joe List, who co-wrote the screenplay, executive produced and stars in the lead role of Jeff, a recovering alcoholic and anxiety-ridden jazz pianist. C.K. shows up only in a couple of scenes as Joe’s therapist, a bit of casting that feels ironic considering his issues.
Fourth of July
The Bottom Line
Not a return to glory.
Inspired by List’s own experiences, the film begins by revealing the myriad personal problems afflicting Jeff’s life, some of which come out during a therapy session in which he frustratingly tells his shrink, “You suck! You’re like the worst therapist!” Sober for three years, he has a marriage to Beth (comedian Sarah Tollemache, List’s real-life spouse) that’s suffering because of her unfulfilled desire to have a child. Finally, barely capable of handling 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, with numerous extended family members in attendance. Things don’t start off well: Prodded by his mother (Paula Plum) to speak up when he begins hemming and hawing about wanting to have a serious conversation with her and his father, he blurts out that he felt unloved growing up and that they’re the cause of his problems. And then things get even worse when she shortly thereafter humiliates him by mocking his neediness in front of all the others.
This sort of dysfunctional family gathering is the stuff of endless autobiographical dramas, saddling Fourth of July with a familiar feeling further exacerbated by its lack of incisive dialogue and well-drawn characterizations. The proceedings mainly feature a lot of bickering, with the perpetually dour Jeff dealing with numerous annoying relatives, including his obnoxious Uncle Kevin (Nick Di Paolo), who finds it amusing to rip down Jeff’s shorts during a volleyball game, and his Uncle Mark (Chris Walsh), who’s only two years older because his father is Jeff’s grandfather. He does take some comfort in the company of the vivacious Naomi (Tara Pacheco), a recently widowed co-worker of one of his cousins.
It doesn’t take long for the numerous scenes featuring the family members behaving boorishly to feel repetitive. The intended dramatic moments, such as Jeff’s seemingly emotionally closed-off father (Robert Walsh) suddenly revealing surprising depths, don’t really land. And a pizza parlor encounter in which Jeff miraculously overcomes his doubts about fatherhood with the help of a brief pep talk isn’t remotely convincing.
The film feels like it must have been personally therapeutic for its star and co-writer, but List never manages to make us relate to his character’s perpetual navel-gazing. And while he’s necessarily hampered by playing someone suffering from depression, his monochromatic deadpan performance proves more tedious than involving.
C.K. has populated the film with a number of his fellow comedians, who occasionally garner some mild laughs with their raucous asides, but genuine humor is in short supply. If this undeniably talented multi-hyphenate really wanted to make an impact with his first film since the unreleased I Love You Daddy, perhaps he should have delved into his own psyche instead.