Sometimes you want to see what kind of work an artist did before he honed his voice, and other times maybe you don't. Louis C.K.'s 1998 feature Tomorrow Night, which the comedian released as a download on his website last week, isn't totally terrible, and even the terrible parts are fueled by an eerie commitment, as if the filmmaker is working through personal demons he couldn't explain even if he wanted to. But all in all, it's hard to consider this ensemble comedy about an emotionally constipated photo developer (Chuck Sklar) as anything but a curiosity: a film that Louis C.K. made while he was figuring out how to be Louis C.K.
This 1998 feature, which had a brief festival run and disappeared, predicts some aspects of the sensibility C.K. would refine on his great FX series Louie: the misanthropy and misery, the playful compositions and cuts, the preference for jazz and faintly Eastern-European-sounding orchestral cues on his soundtracks, the sense of New York City (the film is set in Pittsburgh for some reason, but never convincingly) as a state of being as well as a place. From the opening shots of a rain-soaked Lower Manhattan neighborhood, you know you're in the hands of a real filmmaker, somebody who treats the camera as an expressive tool rather than a device for recording performances. Tight shots of a toy frog bobbing in a rain-swollen gutter and the abstracted gears of a storm-slicked bicycle recall the early work of Lower East Side hipster poet Jim Jarmusch (Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law), but the panoramic images of prewar apartment buildings, their fire escapes cutting zig-zags in the frame, reach back further in movie history, evoking the urban dramas of Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront) and the Italian Neorealists. And then the hero takes his pants off and sits in a bowl of ice cream.
I should back up and tell you that the hero of Tomorrow Night, Charles (Sklar, a producer on The Chris Rock Show and Totally Biased), makes the title character of Louie seem well-adjusted. He runs his camera repair and film developing shop like a monk tending to his monastery, and treats the appearance of customers as an intrusion. The first part of Tomorrow Night establishes and reestablishes what an unpleasant person Charles is. He's such a glowering, bespectacled, arrogant nerd (like John Turturro's Barton Fink, minus the endearingly pathetic qualities) that the local mailman (J.B. Smoove) calls him the meanest man he knows.
Soon enough we drift away from Charles and meet other characters. These include an elderly woman named Florence (Martha Greenhouse). Florence is our gateway into a whole little world of Fellini-esque oddballs. Her best friend (comedian Rick Shapiro in drag, with facial hair) might be a transvestite, or maybe we're supposed to accept her as an old woman too? It's hard to say. Florence has a hateful old husband named Lester (Joseph Dolphin), a gambling-addicted bully who terrorizes her constantly and who, like many characters in Tomorrow Night, has a high-pitched cackling laugh. Florence and Lester have a son (Greg Kohn) who's been in the army for twenty years but has never written his mother a letter — or so she thinks; he's actually been writing her regularly, but the two pranksters in the mailroom (Steve Carell and Robert Smigel, whose performances also consist mainly of cackling) chuck his letters in a specially marked trash can.
This is not the sort of film in which you ask how a man could spend twenty years on the same Army base without ever going home, or getting promoted, or maybe picking up a telephone, or whether the two letter-trashers have been working in that mailroom for twenty years, too. You're just supposed to accept it as an absurdist flourish, like Louie running away from a meeting with his dad by stealing a speedboat — and if it were especially funny, you might. Most of the time it's really not, though, and after a while the script's reliance on broad types starts to feel less the byproduct of a social satirist's instinct than laziness. The mailman's constant leering and braying veer perilously close to shuckin' and jivin.' You can tell the couple that condescends to Chuck in his shop are John Hughes–style old-money preppies because the guy has a sweater tied around his neck. As as for Lola Vagina (Heather Morgan), a misogynist nightmare of oversexed womanhood who taunts Chuck to take a look at some of her undeveloped photos and licks his entire face during a double date, the less said the better. C.K.'s attitude toward many of these characters is summed up by the cameo he gives himself in the film's opening stretch: a guy who gets tired of hosing down a sidewalk and starts hosing down pedestrians instead.
There's an eleventh-hour romance subplot that doesn't convince on any level, a couple of gruesomely violent moments that don't complement the rest of the story, and a head-scratcher ending that feels very film school. "This one is particularly strange," C.K. told fans in an explanatory e-mail. "But it's funny and it's well worth watching. That's what I think, anyway. It certainly isn't for everyone." That last sentence is true enough. In the end, Tomorrow Night is a grating and unsatisfying but still compelling glimpse into a major filmmaker's development. You can see how he'd become an artist capable of a masterpiece like "New Year's Eve," if you squint hard enough. As Steve Martin once said, comedy isn't pretty.