Louis C.K.’s Superb Cinematic Comeback - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Louis C.K.’s Superb Cinematic Comeback
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Louis C.K. as the psychiatrist in “Fourth of July” (Louis C.K./YouTube)

As Louis C.K. put it, with only slight exaggeration, during a recent appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast, Hollywood movies these days are all about either superheroes or slaves. Instead of knocking themselves out trying to find first-rate original scripts that shed fresh light on the human condition — or that, at least, provide a few real laughs — the studio chiefs spend their time commissioning retreads, reboots, sequels, and celluloid versions of as-yet-unadapted comic books and ensuring that the results are acceptable to Black Lives Matter, the transgender community, and the Chinese Communist Party. This is one reason why perhaps the most satisfying cinematic release of the last year or so was The Worst Person in the World, a Norwegian comedy-drama that ended up snagging not just an Oscar nomination for Best International Feature Film but also a nod for Best Original Screenplay. 

To be sure, the studio system has always been something of a straitjacket, and ever since it began there have been filmmakers who tried to operate outside of it. In 1919, actors Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, director D.W. Griffith, and actor-director Charlie Chaplin founded United Artists so that they could make exactly the pictures they wanted to. In mid-century, schlockmeisters like Roger Corman and George A. Romero put out low-budget flicks that weren’t bound by the production code. Then there was the independent film movement that began with the Sundance Film Festival and Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989), and that ended up being swallowed up by the studios and other major corporations — with Miramax co-founder and king of the indies Harvey Weinstein’s becoming the ultimate Hollywood mogul.  

Now a new independent film movement is underway. Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire is producing original feature films that don’t necessarily push conservative ideas but that, by the same token, don’t pander to woke ideology. And then there’s Louis C.K., who was canceled five years ago, in the midst of the #MeToo movement, over a harmless gag; he pulled from release I Love You, Daddy, a black-and-white comedy film he’d just written, directed, and starred in. As it happens, somebody posted it online, and I managed to download it before it disappeared shortly thereafter. It was terrific. Louis C.K. played Glen Topher, a rich TV producer with a spoiled high-school-age daughter, China (Chloë Grace Moretz). A good deal of advance media commentary focused on the efforts of a lecherous old director, Leslie Goodwin (John Malkovich), to seduce China, as critics widely accused Louis C.K. of promoting age-inappropriate relationships. What those critics ignored was that China resists Goodwin’s advances and, in the end, thanks to her father’s tough love, develops some values, finds a job, and learns self-respect. 

Louis C.K. has made a truly beautiful movie that made this viewer laugh heartily and tear up, not just once but several times.

Fortunately, Louis C.K. was too big to cancel for long. He soon returned to stand-up — triumphantly — and now he’s released (on his website, louisck.com) another movie, Fourth of July, which he directed from a script written by himself and comedian Joe List. It’s exactly the kind of product that Hollywood no longer seems interested in releasing — a “small” movie, a “real” movie, about ordinary people and their relationships. In fact, it’s based largely on List’s relationship with his own family. List plays Jeff, a nebbishy, angst-ridden New York jazz pianist and Alcoholics Anonymous member who spends a couple of weeks every July with his extended family at their lakeside vacation house in Maine — and who for years has wanted to use that occasion to open up to his parents about his anger at them and thereby to achieve an emotional breakthrough. After being goaded by his psychiatrist (Louis C.K.) to do it already, he makes the annual trip up north and, immediately upon arrival, feebly chides his parents for never having hugged him or told him “I love you.” But there’s no breakthrough: His frenetic hausfrau of a mother (Paula Plum), who thinks it’s ridiculous for him to doubt her love for an instant, gives him a perfunctory hug and moves on, while his stone-faced father (Robert Walsh) takes a slug of beer. 

Meanwhile the house — decorated, for the holiday, with a huge American flag — is full of extended family, including Uncle Kevin (Nick Di Paolo), who genially pushes booze on Jeff, dismissing his abstemiousness as a result of his living in New York. When Jeff plays the piano, the family groans at the sound of jazz, and Uncle Kevin comments, “More like jizz.” But it’s all genial. It’s all done in love. They all accept one another’s foibles. During their Maine idyll, they all eat and drink a lot and throw balls around in the yard and tell jokes that are dirty and politically incorrect and “racially insensitive.” (It’s nice to see that Louis C.K., far from being cowed by the cancel crowd, seems to be more daring in this regard than ever.) And they argue, sometimes viciously, picking at one another’s old scabs in a way that you can tell they’ve been doing for years. But the arguments never go on for long: They’re part of the way these people bond. 

They have, in short, a formula that works for them. But, somehow, it’s never worked for Jeff. Which is why, having failed with his bid for hugs, he ends up attacking the whole lot of them, telling them off one by one, saying that he hates them and is ashamed of them and calling them “a bunch of drunks.” (Which they aren’t, except through the eyes of a member of Alcoholics Anonymous.) From there on — well, I won’t serve up any more spoilers. What I’ll say is this: Louis C.K. has made a truly beautiful movie that made this viewer laugh heartily and tear up, not just once but several times. If you grew up spending holidays with your extended family — and especially if those people are gone now and those times are long behind you — I can’t imagine this film won’t get to you. Credit for this accomplishment goes first to Louis C.K., who in I Love You, Daddy showed himself to be a very impressive writer-director and who in Fourth of July does a beautiful job of putting this ensemble through its paces. Credit goes, then, to the actors, who very quickly make you believe that they’re family. List, not a professional actor, is especially impressive in a challenging role: You totally buy that this neurotic creature is carrying around a heavy load of suppressed rage. Paolo, basically playing a version of himself, is hilarious. (READ MORE from Bruce Bawer: Diving Into a Pool of PC)

Best of all is Paula Plum (Mom), who’s had minor roles in a number of movies (including Woody Allen’s Irrational Man) but, as Louis C.K. explained on Rogan’s show, is a star of the Boston theater scene. (Indeed, everybody in the cast is either a Boston actor or a Boston comic.) In Plum’s hands, Mom is a richly complex and utterly credible character. In one of her best moments, she mocks Jeff’s whining, saying, “I got issues … you never share your feelings enough!” And in one bravura scene, she responds with magisterial seriousness to his accusations: “You abandoned us…. And yet we welcome you with open arms…. By the grace of heaven, you’re in this family, and by my wrath you’ll be out…. You should be grateful to have this family. Some people don’t have a family!” She’s magnificent, powerful, heartbreaking. It’s the kind of part that could’ve been offered to Meryl Streep — but she couldn’t have been any better than Plum. 

One of this film’s particular strengths, finally, is that it doesn’t take sides. Jeff views his family — a bunch of obvious Trump voters who wear stars-and-stripes sweaters and “One Nation under God” T-shirts and speak unironically about “celebrat[ing] our nation” — as “assholes”; in return, they see him as a self-absorbed PC jerk who’s been poisoned by life among the Manhattan snobs. Many a Hollywood writer and director would’ve encouraged us to see things entirely through Jeff’s eyes. Not Louis C.K. He treats every single character here sympathetically, making it clear to us that underneath what Jeff disdains as their vulgarity, his family are all good souls who love one another unconditionally. Halfway through the picture, I thought I might describe it as a Woody Allen comedy crossed with Long Day’s Journey into Night. But no. It’s too sui generis for that — a movie that, by turns sweet, sad, funny, charming, and downright harrowing, leaves you feeling at the end that you’ve just been in these people’s company and have come away, yes, uplifted.

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