The inspirations and aspirations that propel “Tomorrow Night,” Louis C.K.’s 1998 film that was made available on his Web site Wednesday, couldn’t be more clear. The opening credits that nod affectionately toward Woody Allen. The ensemble cast includes then-barely-known Steve Carell, Wanda Sykes, J.B. Smoove, Robert Smigel and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her Amy Poehler. The film, an occasionally funny, mostly self-conscious grab-bag of alternately absurdist and raunchy set pieces, would barely merit mention were it not for the auteurial hand of C.K., who in the intervening 15 years has become a sensation, thanks in no small part to his shrewd navigation of new media.
The time lag between “Tomorrow Night’s” brief run on the festival circuit and C.K.’s decision to release it DIY-style has made it into something of a charming time capsule, a black-and-white homage not only to the films of Allen and Jim Jarmusch, but also to a bygone era of rotary telephones, celluloid film, record players and an archaic system of communication known as the “U.S. mail.” The film stars Chuck Sklar as Charles, the misanthropic proprietor of a photo shop in Pittsburgh (played by downtown Manhattan) whose compulsive neatness belies a bizarre interior life that he fetishistically indulges in every night. “Tomorrow Night” follows Charles through a series of encounters with his mailman (Smoove), a local floozy (played to hard-edged burlesque excess by Heather Morgan) and finally an elderly customer named Florence (Martha Greenhouse), with whom he embarks on an improbably intimate friendship.
That May-December set-up allows C.K. to trot out all manner of ageist, sexually suggestive jokes; although “Tomorrow Night" is never graphic, it’s nonetheless often outrageously explicit. The outlandishness admittedly can be funny — the cross-dressing Rick Shapiro as Florence’s busybody neighbor Tina is initially hilarious — but the sexual anxiety that underscores “Tomorrow Night" grows tiresome and trite all too quickly. Sklar, who resembles a cross between John Turturro and Josh Pais, keeps an admirably straight face throughout even the most antically bizarre sequences, his hangdog scowl only giving way to the briefest hint of a smile.
The funniest scenes in “Tomorrow Night” have to do with a running gag involving Florence’s Army-private son Willie (Greg Hahn) and military “buddies” played by Smigel and Carell, whose cruel practical jokes and lame poker faces lend the movie an infectious giddiness. “Tomorrow Night” is valuable mostly as a marker by which audiences can see the glimmers of late-’90s emerging talents, and reflect on how far they’ve come. The film looks and sounds terrific, with C.K. shooting on luscious 16-millimeter film and Michael Sugarman providing the lyrically nostalgic musical score. “Tomorrow Night” may not be great art, but it’s a fond look back, in nearly every sense of the phrase.
Available at www.louisck.net. Unrated. Contains profanity and crude humor. 87 minutes.