Jeff, a jazz pianist, is a recovering alcoholic who is almost three years sober. But he hasn’t quite begun to reap the gifts of his new state. In spite of his contented marriage, his soul is a bag of anxiety — one that both his A.A. sponsor and his therapist seem bent on stuffing anew. As Jeff contemplates, with dread, visiting his loutish family for Fourth of July week, the bag is set to burst.
The comedian Joe List, who co-wrote the script, plays Jeff with scruffy sad-sack conviction, and his real-life partner, the comedian Sarah Tollemache, is grounded and appealing as his wife, Beth. The couple have a bantering style that’s emblematic of their offscreen gigs. But neither of these talents (or, for that matter, any of the excellent supporting cast) has much to do, probably, with why you’re reading this review.
The director and other writer of “Fourth of July” is Louis C.K., the comic artist who is hellbent on maintaining his career in the wake of multiple accusations of sexual misconduct. While Louis C.K. has not faced criminal charges, his actions of past years, which he eventually admitted to, were squalid, callous and harmful. Leading to what some would call a cancellation.
What he’s up to with this film, it would appear, is helping out his colleague List, who seems to have put a lot of his own life into this narrative. A narrative that, for better or worse, wrings more glumness than humor from Jeff’s travails. The holiday trip to Maine — and his people’s impressive cabin on a lush mountainside — reveals a clan of possibly unsurpassable awfulness: a mother (Paula Plum) whom Jeff accurately deems “a spider,” and a pack of racist and sexist cousins and uncles who make Archie Bunker look like the Dalai Lama. When a female cousin shows up with her biracial friend, the recently widowed Naomi (Tara Pacheco) — and boy, what a hoo-hah this arrival elicits from the fam — Jeff finds one sane person to talk to. Jeff’s dad (Robert Walsh) will hardly talk at all.
As a director, Louis C.K. puts several feet wrong. Casting himself as Jeff’s passive-aggressive therapist is a bad move; his performance is droll but not droll enough to make his presence more than a distraction. Then there’s the soupy Jeff-and-Beth montage when Jeff is playing the piano in the cabin one morning. And the showy green lighting with which Louis C.K. suffuses a scene preceding Jeff’s meltdown — and breaks out again to signal the fragile emotional state of Jeff’s dad. And finally, there’s the ending. The family dynamic here is so unrelentingly brutal that it’s an actual shock to see how glib the movie is in papering it over. Imagine a “Dr. Phil” producer doing a third-act rewrite of a Tracy Letts play. Without Louis C.K.’s involvement, the movie would warrant little more than a “nice try” shrug.
Fourth of July
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. In theaters.