Watching Louis C.K.'s first feature film, Tomorrow Night, which he just made available on his website for $5, I can't help but be reminded of a quote from the title character in the Coen Brothers' latest movie, Inside Llewyn Davis: "When you're in the entertainment business, you're not supposed to let your practice shit out. It ruins the mystique." Tomorrow Night didn't really "ruin the mystique" of Louis C.K. as a filmmaker for me, but it does definitely feel like practice.
An 87-minute surreal black-and-white comedy Louis C.K. wrote, directed, and produced independently in between seasons of The Chris Rock Show in 1997, Tomorrow Night played at a Sundance and a few other film festivals at the time but didn't gain a lot of attention ("[At Sundance], there were about eight people in the audience," says C.K. "It just got no attention there, so it just died. Never got anywhere.") and has never been publicly available until today. While C.K. had been directing short films since he was a teenager in the mid-'80s, this was his first feature-length movie.
Tomorrow Night stars C.K.'s fellow standup and Chris Rock Show writer Chuck Sklar as Charles, the antisocial owner of a photo shop who starts to come out of his shell by befriending a rambunctious mailman (J.B. Smoove) and an overly sexual woman named Lola Vagina (Heather Morgan, who worked with C.K. on The Dana Carvey Show) before crossing paths with a woman named Florence (Martha Greenhouse). Florence is a sweet elderly lady who hasn't seen or heard from her military son (standup Greg Hahn) in two decades and seeks out Charles to rescue her from her cartoonishly evil gambling addict husband Lester (Joseph Dolphin).
The movie also features Steve Carell and Robert Smigel in minor roles as a pair of Army jerks and blink-and-you-miss-it appearances from Todd Barry, Matt Besser, Conan O'Brien, Amy Poehler, Wanda Sykes, and C.K. himself. "All these people are comedians and actors I had been working with and around back in the '90s and I wrote all of their parts for them specifically," C.K. said in a letter to fans about the movie this week. "To me, that's what this movie was for, to create performance opportunities for all my favorite funny people." C.K. financed Tomorrow Night independently at first, but after running out of money in the middle of production, he took investments from friends and peers like Chris Rock, Jon Stewart, Denis Leary, David Cross, and Brett Butler. Rock even convinced HBO to invest, and C.K. went on Conan to jokingly beg for money.
Tomorrow Night is definitely a strange movie. It has a deliberately slow and offbeat pace and is full of intentionally bizarre moments. For example, the main character enjoys listening to jazz music while sitting on a big bowl of ice cream naked, and the film includes multiple scenes of this happening. Nevertheless, there are a handful of funny moments and some great performances, particularly one from Greg Hahn as a straight-laced military man in a subplot about him being bullied by two Army peers (Carell and Smigel) who can't stop giggling. That subplot, however, is part of a larger problem in Tomorrow Night. A good chunk of the movie's humor derives from characters just being mean for the sake of being mean, which weighs it down a bit and starts to feel redundant the more supporting characters the film introduces who are just big jerks.
The seeds of Louis C.K.'s voice as a writer and filmmaker are definitely here, as you can see him experimenting with a lot of techniques he perfected a decade later on Louie. But just as his standup has drastically evolved since 1997, so has C.K.'s abilities with movies. Not that I expected Tomorrow Night to be anywhere near as strong as Louie when he announced the release earlier this month on The Tonight Show, but it still feels a bit disjointed and student film-y even for a first feature. C.K. sums it up well in his email to fans, writing, "This one is particularly strange. But it's funny and it's well worth watching. That's what I think, anyway. It certainly isn't for everyone."
He also adds that he'd "like to make a profit from it so I can use the proceeds to make a new movie and release that on my website as well." That's the Louis C.K. movie I'm more interested in seeing right now: the one he makes in 2014 with tons more experience and skill on his side.