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A chaotic scene from Fourth Of July, directed, co-written and co-starring comedian Louis CK.Handout

Fourth of July

Directed by Louis C.K.

Written by Louis C.K. and Joe List

Starring Joe List, Nick Di Paolo and Louis C.K.

Classification N/A; 90 minutes

Opens in select theatres July 8

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A comedian goes to a doctor, says he’s depressed. Life seems harsh and cruel – his famous friends no longer return his calls, he’s lost his magazine covers and television specials. Everybody says he’s a pervert, a predator, a toxic personality. He’s been “cancelled.” The doctor says that the treatment is simple. The great comic Louis C.K. is in town tonight, premiering his new movie, Fourth of July. It is supposed to be hilarious, honest, cathartic, a comeback. Go and see the film, that should pick you up. The man bursts into tears. “But doctor ... I am Louis C.K.!”

Cue the snare drum: ba dum tss. And if you found that joke weak, then I have unfortunate news: It is better than almost 90 per cent of the material found in Fourth of July, C.K.’s attempt to inch his way back into the culture after being made persona non grata following a 2017 New York Times investigation, and the subsequent disappearance of his fascinating but very gross comedy I Love You, Daddy.

It is not as if Fourth of July is bad because it is a movie directed, co-written and co-starring C.K., a man who you might despise, tolerate, be completely unaware of or even adore in a fashionably contrarian manner. This film is a dud all on its own, a watered down Woody Allen facsimile that is long on F-bombs and short on wit, with an internal logic that falls apart with barely a half-cocked glance. And we can direct as much of the blame to C.K. as we can his co-writer Joe List, a younger comedian who has opened for C.K. a number of times and stars here as Jeff, a jazz pianist in New York City who is fighting to maintain his sobriety during a holiday visit with his family in rural Maine.

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Joe List and Sarah Tollemache in Fourth of July.Handout

That logline might promise a good deal of push-the-envelope familial tension, the kind of raw, scabrous comedy that C.K. practiced in such brilliant fare as HBO’s Lucky Louie and FX’s Louie, both of which benefit, in an uncomfortable but nonetheless impressive light, from being viewed post-“cancellation.” Yet at every opportunity, Fourth of July deflates instead of explodes – as if C.K. could not decide whether he should attempt a defiantly angry return to the spotlight or if it was even a good idea to try to shake off his shame.

The trouble starts with the casting of List, who both lacks screen presence and sheer believability that this meek, sensitive guy could come from such a braying pack of jackals as his family present themselves as – the type of folk who, in loud New England accents, crack wise about jazz sounding more like a synonym for ejaculate, and whose idea of physical affection involves impromptu headlocks. The idea of an artistic soul escaping his working-class background is an old one that works frequently, if the casting and characters are just right. In Fourth of July, the only relationship that rings true is Jeff’s calm and caring romance with wife, Beth, and that’s probably because actress Sarah Tollemache is List’s real-life partner.

The majority of the film is taken up by either Jeff stressing out about confronting his family over his unhappy (but not exactly traumatic) childhood, or undoing the damage of his eventual, hardly incendiary outburst. The result is a stagey, low-energy story whose wan dialogue, rough-draft narrative and shaky grasp of character (only Jeff’s dad, played by Robert Walsh, gets enough meat to build something approximating a real person) are further hampered by amateur performances and C.K.’s too-mellow directorial pacing. The low budget likely limited C.K.’s stylistic ambitions – it’s clear more money was probably spent securing the song rights to a Jim Croce track than anything else – but there is little evidence the director strained himself.

Perhaps to remind audiences that this is indeed a Louis C.K. production – the movie that woke Hollywood doesn’t want you to see! – the man himself pops up for five minutes as Jeff’s aloof therapist, a not-unfunny creation who is as plainly disinterested in his patient’s plight as we are. Now that’s a decent gag for a movie. Ba dum tss.

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