Jeff, a jazz pianist, is a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for nearly three years. But he hasn’t quite started reaping the gifts of his new state yet. Despite his contented marriage, his soul is a sack of fear—one that both his AA sponsor and his therapist seem determined to refill. As Jeff ponders with dread a visit to his lazy family for the week of July 4, the bag is about to burst.
Comedian Joe List, who co-wrote the script, plays Jeff with a sordid sad conviction, and his real life partner, comedian Sarah Tollemache, is grounded and attractive like his wife, Beth. The pair have a facetious style that is characteristic of their off-screen performances. But none of these talents (or, for that matter, any of the excellent supporting cast) probably has much to do with why you’re reading this review.
The director and other writer of “Fourth of July” is Louis CK, the cartoonist determined to continue his career after multiple allegations of sexual misconduct. While Louis CK has not been charged with criminal charges, his actions over the years, which he eventually admitted, have been nasty, insensitive and harmful. Leading to what some would call a cancellation.
What he intends with this film, it seems, is to help his colleague List, who seems to have invested a large part of his own life into this story. A story that, for better or for worse, squeezes more gloom than humor out of Jeff’s trials. The vacation trip to Maine — and its people’s impressive cabin on a lush mountainside — reveals a clan of possibly unsurpassed horror: a mother (Paula Plum) whom Jeff accurately calls “a spider,” and a bunch of racist and sexist cousins and uncles who make Archie Bunker look like the Dalai Lama. When a female niece shows up with her biracial boyfriend, the recently widowed Naomi (Tara Pacheco)—and boy, what a hoo-hah this arrival of the fam elicits—Jeff finds a healthy person to talk to. Jeff’s father (Robert Walsh) barely talks.
As a director, Louis CK puts a few feet on the wrong foot. Setting himself up as Jeff’s passive-aggressive therapist is a bad move; his acting is droll, but not droll enough to make his presence more than a distraction. Then there’s the smooth Jeff-and-Beth montage when Jeff plays the piano in the cabin one morning. And the garish green lighting with which Louis CK drenches a scene preceding Jeff’s meltdown—and breaks out again to signal Jeff’s father’s fragile emotional state. And finally there is the end. The family dynamic here is so relentlessly brutal that it’s a real shock to see how smooth the film is to put it on paper. Imagine a “Dr. Phil” producer rewriting a play by Tracy Letts in act three. Without the involvement of Louis CK, the film would warrant little more than a “nice effort” shrug.
Fourth of July
Not judged. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. In theatres.