When Louie premiered in 2010, its creator, Louis C.K., set a TV precedent by shooting his series on a laughably low budget in exchange for total creative control. Seven years later, C.K. is widely acknowledged as the greatest living standup comic and has entered a new phase of his career, one in which the fifty-year-old comedian, writer, and director can do pretty much whatever he pleases — or maybe not.
I Love You, Daddy (co-written with TV writer Vernon Chatman) is the first movie C.K. has directed since 2001’s Pootie Tang. It’s a natural next step for this button pusher who for the past five years has been dogged by allegations of sexual misconduct with female comedians — allegations to which he has so far refused to respond. But soon he may have to. Earlier today, trade mags began reporting that a premiere screening planned for tonight at the Paris Theatre in New York City was canceled after word began circulating that the New York Times was about to drop a bombshell related to those allegations. [UPDATE: It’s now out.] Whatever C.K. wishes, I Love You, Daddy is unlikely to be the last word on the subject.
With a deliberately provocative plot and the undeniable homage it pays to Woody Allen’s Manhattan, I Love You, Daddy has C.K. steering into the skid. Shot on 35 mm in luscious black and white, the film is an ode to classical studio cinema with a capital “C,” right down to the loopy title font and the swelling, Gershwin-esque orchestral score by Zachary Seman and Robert Miller. Set in present-day New York, the film has a classic Hollywood texture and a classic Hollywood conceit: a brilliant old man paired with a beautiful young ingenue. C.K. plays Glen Topher, a TV writer with a cavernous high-rise in Manhattan, a house in the Hamptons, a private jet, and a seventeen-year-old daughter, China (Chloë Grace Moretz), to whom he can’t say no. “I love you, daddy,” is her constant refrain, which according to Glen’s ex, Maggie (Pamela Adlon), means he must be doing something wrong.
Grace Cullen (Rose Byrne), a glamorous movie star campaigning for a role in his new series, invites Glen and China to a party, where Glen is gobsmacked to see his hero, a legendary 68-year-old director named Leslie Goodwin (John Malkovich), who has been trailed for years by rumors that he “fucked a kid.” When China calls him a “child molester,” Glen scoffs, “That’s just a story. He’s a great artist.” But Glen sings a different tune when he discovers the great artist has struck up a kind of friendship with wide-eyed China. The auteur and the teenager enjoy a long chat at the party and a spontaneous run-in at the women’s section of Barneys, where Leslie admits to loitering so he can check out young girls. “I’m a pervert,” he explains to her. Suddenly, Leslie is inviting China to accompany him and a group of bohemian artist types to Paris, and a horrified Glen finds he’s paralyzed to stop her. “He’s kind of gross,” China says of Leslie. “But he’s hilarious.”
To anyone who’s been following the speculation surrounding C.K. — he’s been rumored to have masturbated in front of nonconsenting women — I Love You, Daddy comes off as both a sly acknowledgment of his alleged sexual behavior and a vexing evasion. In a way, C.K. is getting in front of the story here, but he does plenty of hedging, too. He’s cast himself in the role of concerned father, not predatory creep (then again, Allen never used to play the creep, either). As on Louie, C.K. surrounds himself with a coterie of brash women who loudly cajole him to be a better father, a better husband, a better writer; Glen’s put-upon production partner, Paula (Edie Falco), lashes out with barely controlled anger whenever he makes another major decision without consulting her.
This circle of Strong Women — many of whom bat away Glen’s paranoia about Leslie and China — feels like a buffer, a protective shield against accusations volleyed at C.K. I Love You, Daddy plays like an attempt to work through a particular brand of middle-aged male angst. The film is anchored by a series of one-on-one conversations — between Glen and China, Glen and Maggie, Glen and Leslie, and, in particular, Glen and Grace — about female empowerment, radical feminism, and whether a relationship between an older man and a younger woman is inherently predatory. Anxiety about weird sexual impulses has always been central to C.K.’s work; his 1998 independent film, Tomorrow Night, which he released on his website in 2014, centered on a misanthropic man who finds sexual release by sitting in a bowl of ice cream. This buffer might be more effective, to me at least, if C.K.’s body of work hadn’t already convinced me that the comic gets off on exposing his shame — an impulse that finds its ultimate expression in the release of this film at this time.
With many male artists, and comedians in particular, who take pride in their willingness to tackle any taboo, that say-anything ethos always seems to stop at their own front door. All the rah-rah feminist empowerment talk in the world won’t drown out the way C.K. presents Moretz, who first appears in a bikini onscreen — like a creamy confection, an ice cream cone waiting to be licked. (“I just look at women,” C.K. marveled in his 2013 stand-up special, Oh My God. “Like they’re, you know, cakes in windows.”) China’s radiant face, perfectly coiffed hair, and gorgeous body are on display in every one of her scenes, a presentation that makes Glen’s frustration at his own failings as a parent — a kind of impotence at watching his daughter chase after another old man — feel uncomfortably Freudian, and China herself feel less like a person than a display-case dessert.
The one character who remains inscrutable to the end is Leslie, and the movie leaves its central issue — what, exactly, is wrong with an older man and a barely legal girl engaging in an intimate relationship — totally unresolved. C.K. seems oblivious to what should be clear: Even if a man refrains from putting his hands on a girl, that doesn’t mean his interest in her is harmless. And it doesn’t help that Malkovich is far and away the most enjoyable screen presence here, and the character who gets the most laughs. Ultimately, C.K., who always has found his strongest and funniest voice when he’s onstage alone with a microphone, struggles to make the movie cohere — it goes limp, the plot fizzles, and Leslie himself fades out of view, a cloudy figure who never really has to answer to anyone.
I Love You, Daddy
Directed by Louis C.K.
Opens November 17