Film Review: Louis C.K.’s “Tomorrow Night” – Ernie Kovacs meets early John Waters

“Tomorrow Night” is firmly in the makes-you-cringe vein of comedy of which “Louie” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” would become exemplars.

A scene from "Tomorrow Night"

A scene from “Tomorrow Night” — a black-and-white feature about an anti-social man who decides to stick his head out of his shell — and almost immediately regrets it.

By Betsy Sherman

There’s a new treat over on Louis C.K.’s website. The Newton, Mass.-bred comic and writer-producer-director-star of the sitcom Louie has made his fans happy, and turned a nice profit, by selling his comedy specials as digital downloads on the site at five dollars a pop. In late January, C.K. released the movie Tomorrow Night, also without a middleman, also for five dollars. He wrote and directed the shoestring-budget 16mm film in 1998; it played some festivals but wasn’t picked up for distribution. The black-and-white feature about an anti-social man who decides to stick his head out of his shell — and almost immediately regrets it — is about as bleak as American comedy ever gets.In fact, it’s so Eastern European in its lack of sentimentality it’s a reminder that C.K.’s actual, confusing-to-pronounce name is Szekely. Yet the movie is also filled with delightfully peculiar comic flourishes that range from subtle to moronically silly (it’s kind of like Ernie Kovacs meets early John Waters). The story’s balance between grinding banality and outbursts of nuttiness isn’t always elegant, but it’s a very respectable first feature and it certainly points the way towards the uncompromising genius of Louie (and its underrated predecessor, Lucky Louie). I liked it, and I’m pretty sure my 1998 self would have liked it too.

Chuck Sklar (who, like C.K., was a writer for Late Night with Conan O’Brien and The Chris Rock Show) stars as Charles Brown, thirty-ish proprietor of a big-city camera shop. Charles doesn’t appear to have any family, employees or ties to any living being. His face is expressionless, his gaze reserved for the cameras he repairs. Whenever anyone enters the shop, be it the talkative mailman Mel (J.B. Smoove) or even a potential customer, Charles’ curt responses make it clear that he’d like nothing better than to have them leave. In the privacy of his apartment, his method of cutting loose is to put on a 78 r.p.m. record and, to the peppy jazz soundtrack, perform a bizarre ritual that gives him, well, maybe it’s sexual pleasure, maybe it’s just a release. This nightly practice works for him, until suddenly it doesn’t anymore. So he uncharacteristically reaches out. First, he asks sex-exuding customer Lola Vagina for a date (played aggressively over-the-top by Heather Morgan, the character is either a raunchy performance artist, a time-traveling burlesque queen, or a nervous virgin’s fever dream). Then Charles asks self-styled ladies’ man Mel for advice and moral support. Not surprisingly, the night out does not go smoothly.

A scene from "Tomorrow Night."

A scene from “Tomorrow Night” featuring Charles (Chuck Sklar) and Florence (Martha Greenhouse).

Intercut with Charles’ story are scenes involving an elderly couple who live in a housing project. The manic Lester (played by Joseph Dolphin), when he’s not playing the horses at the OTB, is gleefully tormenting his wife Florence (Martha Greenhouse), a sweet but addled lady who pines for their son Willie, who joined the army 20 years earlier and hasn’t written or called since. The movie shows us why, when we visit Willie (Greg Hahn), still an army private, as he learns that his letters to Mom have been intercepted as a long-term practical joke by two cackling buddies (Steve Carell, who worked with C.K. on The Dana Carvey Show, and Robert Smigel, who wrote for both Conan and Carvey).

The point of contact between Charles and Florence is that she sent a roll of film to be developed at his shop (hey, remember getting film developed?). With anal-retentive focus, Charles has been trying to clear out all back orders, to the point where he offers to deliver the photos to Florence himself. The homespun charms of Florence’s apartment —matching easy chairs, immaculately dusted Hummels — cast a spell on Charles. “You keep a very decent house,” he says, with more emotion than we’ve yet heard from him. The lonely Florence is flattered by his attention. Can a romance be kindled that will fulfill both of these odd characters’ needs?

Tomorrow Night is firmly in the makes-you-cringe vein of comedy of which Louie and Curb Your Enthusiasm would become exemplars. There are several good performances, the most important being that of Sklar, who commits admirably to a deadpan demeanor. He never slips up and makes Charles likeable. The anachronisms to which Charles is drawn — early 20th-century phones, a hand-cranked record player, the dowdy Florence — go well with the terrific old-timey score composed by Neal Sugarman. There’s a nod-to-vaudeville feeling reminiscent of those absurdist between-guests bits on Conan, although C.K. gets to take the gags further than NBC censors would ever allow. For example, there’s Florence’s best friend Tina, played by the not-at-all-feminine comic Rick Shapiro in a housedress with a cheap blonde wig perched above his black sideburns, who graphically tells Florence about her trips to Port Authority to proposition men. Some may think Tina is supposed to be a drag queen, but I choose to think she’s a bored housewife channeling her inner stud. And there’s Lola’s husband — yeah, Mr. Vagina — hilariously played by Nick DiPaolo (who was C.K.’s roommate after the two left Boston to break into the New York comedy scene). Bathed in the light of a TV, drinking a beer, he’s happy to let Charles, or any other guy, wear out his overly energetic wife. He’s found a way to cope — which, in the soul-crushing big city of Tomorrow Night, is really all one can hope for.

You can buy Tomorrow Night for $5 on Louis C. K.’s website.

Betsy Sherman has written about movies, old and new, for The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, and The Improper Bostonian, among others. She holds a degree in Archives Management from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. When she grows up, she wants to be Barbara Stanwyck.

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