Louis C.K.’s first theatrical feature as a writer-director since 2001’s Pootie Tang wrestles relentlessly, in scene after discomfiting scene, with some of the entertainment industry’s most immediate and upsetting issues: the plague of sexual assault, the unsavory legacy of white male privilege, and the ongoing problem of enabling. And the film will, undoubtedly, be rejected by many as the unsolicited penance-seeking of a man around whom such discussions have recently circled. It’s also as exhilaratingly honest and unshackled a work as many have come to expect from this auteur of cringe comedy, one that foresees, absorbs, and responds to all possible bile that might be directed its way, knowing full well of the muck it dredges up. Certainly, more can be asked of C.K. as a man, but can more be asked of an artist?
Fittingly, the perennial question of whether art and artist can possibly be detached from one another looms heavily over I Love You, Daddy, which finds C.K. alter ego Glen Topher tormented by the sudden involvement of his teenage daughter, China (Chloë Grace Moretz), with an illustrious film director, Leslie Goodwin (John Malkovich), who also happens to be a rumored sexual predator—a simultaneously cerebral and ingratiating type who splits the difference between Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. A terrific Malkovich is fully at ease under a goatee and a sarong, investing every one of Leslie’s highfalutin proclamations with a strange brew of sociopathic detachment and charitable curiosity. Slyly repelling any villainous narratives surrounding himself, Leslie is defined by an inscrutability that drives C.K.’s prosperous TV writer—and us—up the walls and fuels the film’s anguished interrogation.
Before Leslie even enters the narrative, though, I Love You, Daddy already exposes a cornucopia of C.K.’s predilections and anxieties as a middle-aged father and entertainer. A long scene introducing Glen’s domestic life takes on the quality of an unspooling nightmare of parental angst when China saunters down the stairs in a Lolita-esque bikini, fresh off an all-expenses-paid vacation and attracting the leering eyes of Glen’s actor friend, Ralph (Charlie Day). This is followed by the arrival of Glen’s fiercely unfiltered ex-girlfriend (Pamela Adlon, operating in the same affectionately antagonistic vein as she always has for C.K.), who showers China with compliments while tearing into Glen for his ineffectual, never-say-no parenting. The scene appropriately begins with Ralph ironically hurling expletives at Glen to commemorate the news of his latest television deal, an episodic comedy about nurses that Glen clearly has no investment in writing. This is a guy too consumed by his failures as a parent to register the gravity of a professional accomplishment anyway, so the good news literally materializes as humiliation.
Beyond the incident-rich evolution of this one-location sequence, which reflects C.K.’s longstanding interest in the art of the sitcom, certain elements of its presentation immediately register as off-kilter. All action gravitates around the couch arrangement, with the camera often swiveling on axis for lengthy periods of time without cuts, and mawkish big-band music weaves in and out of the soundtrack almost as if at random, punctuating certain jokes or bits of pathos before ceding the floor to the room’s dead ambiance. It all emphasizes the artificiality of the space, making Glen’s abode feel less like the swanky Manhattan apartment that it is than a vacuum-sealed chamber with studio lights mounted just out of sight. The same can be said of his high-rise production office, which overlooks a breathtaking vista of skyscrapers that’s actually just a sterile rear projection. Both these locations are repeatedly returned to, functioning like Brechtian waystations for this stalled and nervous soul, while China increasingly travels the world—first to Florida for a reprise trip, then to Paris with Leslie and his high-society cronies.
There’s a pointed dissonance between I Love You, Daddy’s use of lusciously contrasty black-and-white 35mm (courtesy of director of cinematography Paul Koestner) and its knowingly cheap interiors that speaks both to C.K.’s hubris and his awareness of his own limitations. The implication is of an artist reaching for the rafters but then willfully cutting himself down to size—a pattern that’s true of all C.K.’s characters, Glen included, who tend to overstep their social bounds before falling back on self-pity.
Several of I Love You, Daddy’s most cutting scenes revolve around this idea—the best being a long post-coital debate between Glen and star actress Grace Cullen (Rose Byrne) that’s captured in an elegantly choreographed long take that shifts between a handful of Bergmanesque two-shots. Here, Glen voices his concerns about the seemingly depraved Leslie, Grace articulately rebuffs him, Glen pounces back by citing her lack of parental experience, Grace acquiesces but continues to put faith in China’s maturity, and so on. Ultimately, the women in the story—from Grace to China to Adlon’s character to Glen’s frazzled producing partner (Edie Falco) to his ex-wife (Helen Hunt)—are the ones who come out more or less morally unscathed, all of which culminates in a hysterically insufficient but, given the extratextual context, truly primal gesture from Glen: “I’m sorry, women.”
I Love You, Daddy charts the path to this last-ditch apology in episodic bursts over a protracted narrative timeline, with Glen alternating between strenuously validating and shaming himself as his daughter grows up faster than he can write a line of good dialogue for his show. As much as the film is a showcase for C.K.’s pitch-black comedic voice, it’s equally an exercise in directorial panache. C.K.’s never devised a lovelier shot than the one that cranes down from a view of Central Park to a lavish outdoor gala for China’s 18th birthday, nor has he managed something as inspired as the employment of split diopter in one scene to compositionally equate the lecherous Leslie with Glen and Ralph. Those already unsympathetic to C.K.’s shtick and especially so after his sexual harassment allegations will understandably be put off by this profoundly narcissistic work of exorcism, but no one can cry evasion. This is the work of an artist who’s neurotically concerned with his behavior and not afraid to follow its unpleasant repercussions.