One of the more effective comic throughlines of Louis C.K.’s first movie since the studio-sabotaged blaxploitation satire/homage Pootie Tang involves Mother, May I?, a thinly veiled excuse for teen sexual experimentation disguised as a “game.” I Love You, Daddy – right down to its provocation of a title – works in a similar fashion, in that its threadbare plot is really just a delivery device for C.K.’s pet concerns about fatherhood, fame, notoriety, privilege, and sexual power dynamics.
Where last year’s direct-to-web series Horace and Pete saw C.K. leave his usual wheelhouse of obviously-autobiographical figures in order to ask bigger questions about the American family, Daddy retreats to a much more familiar space. C.K. stars as Glen Topher, a very successful and prolific TV writer widely respected by the industry and generally seen as a genius (sound familiar?). His work has brought him fame and fortune, but no personal stability. His ex-wife (Helen Hunt) hates his guts, his manager (Edie Falco) is in a permanent state of rage and disbelief at his shoddy and unprofessional work habits, and, most frustratingly of all for Glen, his 17-year-old daughter China (Chloë Grace Moretz) threatens to become completely aimless thanks to her life of immense wealth and privilege. Not helping matters is the fact that his latest project, a TV series about nurses, is threatening to go completely off the rails due to his lack of a personal stake in the material.
There’s already enough there to power a few episodes of Louie, but Daddy’s core concerns actually become clear when Glen and China meet Leslie Goodwin (John Malkovich), a 68-year-old writer-director Glen idolizes and whose work has served as an inspiration for his own. Glen is perfectly happy to leave the rumor that Goodwin has repeatedly seduced underage girls uninterrogated – until, that is, Goodwin strikes up a suspiciously close acquaintance with China. (C.K. hasn’t been coy about the fact that Goodwin, for all intents and purposes, is Woody Allen.)
Shot on black-and-white 35mm film stock and accompanied by a throwback orchestral score (as well as vintage credits and title cards), Daddy’s most demonstrative aesthetic choices nod to both classic Hollywood as well as, most obviously, Allen’s Manhattan, though CK’s usual editing rhythms (a mix of arrhythmic jump cuts and very leisurely long takes) reign supreme. The mix of old and new is not the primary source of tension here, though. Viewers who have any familiarity with C.K. are likely to be aware of the fact that he has his own set of rumors dogging him. C.K. has rightly developed a reputation as one of the more forward-thinking creatives in comedy, particularly on matters of sex and gender, which has made this development particularly troubling.
So, how can Daddy successfully interrogate Hollywood’s propensity for creating a “safe space” for male sexual misconduct when its creator has potential skeletons in his closet he flatly refuses to discuss? (It is worth noting that one of the primary sources of these rumors has recanted, though it’s tough to square said recanting with the actual substance of her original remarks.) In truth, it can’t; part of what makes Daddy such a strange and bemusing viewing experience is that it becomes clear fairly quickly that a) C.K. is very much aware that most audience members will be familiar with the rumors and b) he intends to exploit our discomfort about that for as much of the 135-minute runtime as he can get away with, inasmuch as it can help to support the movie’s themes about the ultimate unknowability of the private lives of strangers.
The simple existence of these extratextual factors might be enough to nauseate some viewers, even moreso in the various scenes involving Glen discussing age-of-consent laws, male privilege, and the line between public and private behavior with the various women in his life. As on Louie, C.K. is inordinately fond of writing scenes in which he/his onscreen avatar is “the asshole” of a given situation. Scenes like this make up the bulk of Daddy – Glen is patronizing, Glen makes a pass at the wrong person, Glen mortifies his daughter, Glen mansplains (though he’s cognizant enough to at least know the term), Glen tanks a project due to lack of focus, Glen embarrasses himself in front of his mentor. Glen is so permanently clueless and wrong in any given situation, in fact, that it starts to feel like both a crutch and a shield. By representing himself (in barely-fictional form) as consistently incorrect or on the wrong side of a given issue, he’s in effect absolving the real C.K. through a kind of self-immolation: if he can so convincingly sketch out the arguments and place himself on the “incorrect” position for comic effect, he must agree with the “correct” positions. Nevertheless, there is a very real sense that C.K. clearly, ultimately sides with Glen and other characters in Daddy who insist that “everyone’s a pervert,” even if only the truly privileged can walk around with the cachet to get away with it. (Speaking of having the cachet to get away with things: Daddy marks the first time in recent memory I can recall seeing a white character not “coded” as racist dropping an n-bomb.)
If one doesn’t pay heed to rumors or is at least willing to set them aside for a little over two hours, Daddy is far from worthless as an entertainment. Malkovich is a wonder as Goodwin, a walking PUA-manual creep with an almost-perfect awareness of the powers his fame and reputation have over whoever he’s talking to; the late-film confrontation between Malkovich and Moretz is one of the best scenes CK has ever directed. As one would expect, the movie is funny; occasionally very funny, such as when Glen’s friend (Charlie Day) asks Goodwin point-blank on their first meeting if the allegations against him are true. And while the choice of black-and-white 35mm film stock might seem like a gimmick, there’s a peculiar thrill in seeing very familiar actors’ faces show up onscreen in subtly different form. (Day, in particular, appears very distinct from his usual self in this format.) Also, while CK uses old stock, there’s no Vaseline on the lens; if anything, the age discrepancy between Glen’s exes and his current squeeze (Rose Byrne) is reinforced through frank lighting and makeup choices – one of the subtler examples of the movie’s attention to askew gender and power dynamics.
For its ambitious thematic sweep and stellar cast, Daddy still feels like a step back from Horace and Pete, which took more inspiration from the likes of Chayefsky than Allen, and seemed to indicate that CK was looking to broaden his toolkit and themes. Daddy is ultimately just a big(ger)-budget expansion of his previous work, albeit now armed with an additional, uncomfortable payload. The most unfortunate side effect of the circumstances surrounding the movie’s release is that as long as CK insists his own behavior is the one subject he’ll never broach directly, he’ll likely end up alienating the same would-be viewers whose assumptions he questions – or even resents.