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Louis CK’s First Film, ‘Tomorrow Night,’ Is an Odd, Messy Curio

Half the battle when selling an independent film is the backstory, and Louis CK’s Tomorrow Night has a good one. Louie wrote, produced, and directed the low-budget comedy back in the late ‘90s, when he was working as a writer on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. It premiered at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, where (for the sake of proper time placement) it played alongside The Opposite of Sex, Pi, Smoke Signals, Buffalo ‘66, Next Stop Wonderland, and Slums of Beverly Hills. And that was the last anyone saw of it. It didn’t find distribution, and Louie went on to direct Pootie Tang, become a stand-up superstar, and create one of television’s best comedies. The movie ended up, he later said, stored under his bed — where it stayed for a decade and a half, until he decided to dust it off, get it a digital transfer, and sell it on his website for the customary five bucks.

As for the movie itself, it is… interesting. “The pace is sometimes slow and deliberate,” he wrote to me (and, OK, all of his other subscribers) in an email. “Sometimes crazy. But it’s exactly the movie I wanted to make and I’m proud of it.” His story unfolds in a series of loosely connected blackout sketches. The primary focus is Charles (Chuck Sklar), a grim, socially inept jerk who runs his camera store with an iron fist and a frown — but at the end of each day, he goes home, takes off his glasses, fires up the Victrola, scoops an entire container of ice cream into a bowl, and sits in it bare-assed.

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Charles decides too many of his customers aren’t picking up their photos, so he starts to call them, alternating pleas and threats (“If you don’t come in today and pick up your photos, I will throw them out… Yes, I will… then come and get them”). One of those calls leads him to Florence (Martha Greenhouse), a senior citizen who’s unhappily married to a miserable old coot (Joseph Dolphin), and who hasn’t heard a word from her soldier son in 20 years. After an ill-advised double date with a fast woman named Lola Vagina (“Did you look at my DIRTY PICTURES?” she demands), he realizes he desires Florence. “I’m looking for a companion,” he tells her, “and I find your tidiness to be appealing.”

And so on. Tomorrow Night is shot (by Paul Kaestner, Louie’s director of photography for Louie) in Jarmuschian, deadpan black and white, which only highlights the utter bizarreness of what’s happening onscreen. Some of its tropes reappear in Louie: the old-timey music cues, a fascination with bizarre characters and New York street scenes, the occasional wonderful throwaway visual gag, an absurdist tone that occasionally pops up on the show (particularly in its first season).

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But Tomorrow Night is much closer to Louie’s early short films, both in terms of tone and quality. He hasn’t quite figured out his cinematic voice yet, and much of the film is played so broadly that it comes off as desperate. Throw in the surprisingly amateurish filmmaking (much of the footage is overexposed by a good stop or two, giving it an odd, blown-out quality) and you’ve got… well, you’ve got an old, forgotten indie, a movie that never made it out of Sundance.

Is it worth your five bucks? Sort of. It’s certainly an interesting bit of archaeology — aside from its soon-to-be-legendary creator, Steve Carell, JB Smoove, Wanda Sykes, Robert Smigel, Conan O’Brien, and Amy Poehler all appear (some fleetingly). But it’s more weird and off-balance than genuinely funny; I laughed out loud more at his email selling the film than the film itself (“Be prepared to sit through people dialing rotary phones, which takes a while”). Louie’s fans will probably want to give it a peek — if for no other reason, than to appreciate how far he’s come.

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