Louis C.K. wants a sequel.
The edgy comic’s last movie, “I Love You, Daddy,” opened back in 2017. Or, rather, almost opened. Hours before the film’s scheduled premiere, the star became one of the early, prominent, publicly called-out villains of the #MeToo movement, accused of exposing himself and masturbating in front of multiple women. Although critics’ screenings had already been held, the red-carpet event was cancelled. Publicity campaigns were dropped. Ultimately, the picture was never released at all, with Louis C.K buying it back for $5 million and sticking it on a shelf.
But now, years later, he is back, with a new movie, a new attitude, and the apparent assumption that he, and everybody else, has moved on.
The new picture is called “Fourth of July” and it’s getting a limited release, appropriately enough, this weekend. It’s about family, it’s about forgiveness, it’s about coming to terms with who you really are and proceeding to a healthier, healing space. In other words, it’s about as far from the old Louis C.K. as you might expect.
But not always in the right ways.
“I Love You, Daddy” sprang directly from the old Louis C.K.’s id and, like so much of his transgressive comedy then, delighted in pushing buttons many people didn’t even want to acknowledge. It starred the comic as a selfish, shallow single father who was hyper-aware of, and incredibly uncomfortable around, his teenage daughter’s ripening sexuality. Plot points included her being groomed by an ancient, respected director (think Woody Allen) and Louis C.K.’s character making a clumsy pass at one of her classmates. Oh, and another character whose constant public response, to the mention of a woman’s name, was manically miming masturbation.
Feeling queasy yet?
Cringeworthy comedy was, of course, what Louis C.K. built his career on; his critically lauded TV series, “Louie,” centered on the misadventures of a man behaving badly. The real problem with “I Love You, Daddy” wasn’t simply that it arrived just as Louis C.K. was finally forced to admit to his backstage behavior, offering the wan defense that, well, he’d always asked first, and thought he had the women’s consent. (The women, mostly comedians trying to build their own careers, remembered it somewhat differently.) It was that, with his film’s masturbation jokes and general horniness, Louis C.K. seemed to be giving us an unwelcome and unapologetic peek into his own state of mind — as if Allen’s dirty-old-man “Manhattan” had been released right after he began sleeping with Soon-Yi. (It didn’t help that, like Allen, Louis C.K. has regularly pushed the same onscreen persona, encouraging the audience to conflate it with the actor.) Thanks to the timing, it was no longer “just” a film.
The movie disappeared, as did Louis C.K. But then, slowly, he started edging his way back into the spotlight. He made a few unannounced appearances. He began recording and uploading comedy specials to his website, went on an international tour, even won a Grammy. And now he’s returned to filmmaking — an art that was always his first love — with “Fourth of July,” which he directed, co-wrote and even plays a small part in.
But sadly, the movie feels like something that, for all his mammoth faults, Louis C.K.’s work never was — forced and dishonest.
“Fourth of July” stars co-screenwriter Joe List as Jeff, a 30-something jazz pianist and recovering alcoholic living in New York. Although he’s been sober for two and a half years and is in therapy, nothing seems to be progressing — and not just because Louis C.K. plays his unnamed psychotherapist. Jeff feels anxious, uncertain, unsettled. He’s not sure where his life is headed, and his wife’s sudden admission that she regrets they never had a child leaves him shocked. And so Jeff decides the best thing to do to break out of this emotional stasis is go to his extended family’s annual, drunken summer blowout and confront everybody about everything he’s been holding in for years.
Bad idea, Jeff.
Also, bad script, guys.
Set mostly in Massachusetts and driven by a cast of veteran (if widely unknown) actors, most of them with accents only a Red Sox fan could love, “Fourth of July” has a few things going for it. Cinematographer Christopher Raymond, who worked with Louis C.K. way back on “Pootie Tang,” gets some nice contrasts going between the ugly, nicotine-tinged interiors of the family’s vacation home and the gorgeous natural blues and greens of the country outside. And the extended family is depicted as so unremittingly crude, racist and homophobic, we’re on Jeff’s side from the start, waiting for the moment when he tells them all off. When he finally does, at high volume, we want to cheer.
But as soon as Jeff finds his nerve, the movie loses its own. What makes sense — logically, dramatically — is for the story to change direction then, showing Jeff leaving the house, heading back to New York and trying to move on with his life. But instead — spoiler alert! — Jeff stays. He listens, meekly, as the next morning his mother has her say, lambasting him as the oversensitive, ungrateful, shameful son he is. Then Jeff listens again as an uncle tells him off a second time, saying he has no right to criticize his parents for anything — they owe him nothing, although he owes them a big fat apology. Bizarrely, neither Jeff nor, even more bizarrely, the filmmakers seem to disagree with this. Apparently, the best thing for an abused person to do is stick it out and accept some more abuse. Because that’s what family is all about, isn’t it?
The movie ends with a let’s-hug-it-out embrace, and some upbeat Jim Croce on the soundtrack. Roll credits.
Also, roll my eyes.
Louis C.K. is behind this? Louis C.K., who used to make jokes about everything from child molesters to school shooting survivors? The man who built a career on cringe comedy, and desperately flawed and flailing antiheroes? How is reuniting with a dysfunctional family a happy ending? Some bridges are better burned down than repaired, and the final scene of Jeff reaching out to his domineering mommy for a hug feels less like the beginning of a new chapter in his life and more like the start of another couple of decades of useless therapy. It’s not only a betrayal of the character, it’s a betrayal of an audience that was promised some sort of confrontational truth-telling, only to be informed that the best thing for victims isn’t to call out their victimizers, but to love them.
Considering Louis C.K.’s history, that’s a pretty strange and self-serving message to be pushing.
I always figured that Louis C.K. would survive his scandal. As I wrote back at the time of the Will Smith slap, what really kills you in Hollywood isn’t bad behavior; it’s if that bad behavior is so out of sync with your public persona it forces fans to rethink their opinion of you. Smith was supposed to be an affable good guy, so his outburst at the Oscars was a shock; Louis C.K. always played a clumsy, squirmy kind of character anyway, so his behavior, however egregious, didn’t force us to radically reconsider him. Once he made the necessary apologies, and spent some time out of the limelight, it was clear he’d recover and start making movies again, and find his way back to his core audience.
I just hadn’t imagined he’d return from the wilderness having learned nothing — and having lost his sense of perspective, and humor, along the way.
For more on “Fourth of July,” visit louisck.com/pages/fourth-of-july. Here is the film’s trailer:
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