Louis C.K. loves a mess, and I Love You, Daddy, his first feature film as a director since 2001’s Pootie Tang, is exactly that. That’s not to say that each and every scene lacks purpose, but that chaos, mostly of the emotional sort, is C.K.’s preferred m.o. He’s certainly treading into hot-button territory throughout this often funny yet ultimately flimsy dark comedy about a flavor-of-the-month sitcom writer, Glen Topher (C.K.), whose spoiled 17-year-old daughter, China (Chloë Grace Moretz), takes up with 68-year-old Leslie Goodwin (John Malkovich), a film director who Glen worships, and also a known lech who’s equal parts Roman Polanski and Woody Allen.
It’s impossible to watch I Love You, Daddy and not think of Allen’s decades-long brush with scandal over the alleged molestation of his daughter, Dylan Farrow, who called out C.K. (among several others) in a 2014 open letter in The New York Times for working with her father. Even the look of the film, which was shot on 35mm black-and-white stock, along with its lush orchestral scoring by Robert Miller and Zachary Seman, seems designed to recall Allen’s beloved 1979 romance Manhattan. (Furthering the parallel, Moretz comes off as millennial kin to Mariel Hemingway’s teenage Tracy, who Allen’s character dated in that film.) At heart, however, this is a story of a father so terrified of losing his daughter that he does no parenting whatsoever. This makes I Love You, Daddy, in some ways, a more sobering and defeatist extension of the family scenes in C.K.’s recent semi-autobiographical FX television series Louie.
There’s a sense that we’re simultaneously looking through several glasses darkly, that C.K. is examining our very modern obsession with peoples’ personal lives (his own checkered one very much included), as well as whether it’s possible to separate art from the artist, through a film that feels out of its time, and not always in the best ways. Like the disparate elements on screen, the characters clash with themselves and each other.
C.K. is his usual self as Topher, an at once exasperated and horrified schlub who comes off a bit too pitiably here to be believable. Moretz’s China is a great Lolita-esque sight gag and little else; not even her big climactic scene, in which her haughty youthfulness wilts into raw vulnerability, makes her seem like anything beyond a scantily clad construct designed to launch a thousand think pieces. Malkovich’s Goodwin, however, is an indelible creation that trades on and complicates the actor’s icky reptilian magnetism, somehow making his character’s libertinism both philosophical and principled.
That the film’s most predatory figure is its frequent ethical figurehead should surprise no one who’s familiar with C.K.’s work. This is the guy, after all, who thrust a hot poker into a Saturday Night Live audience with a routine about the likely pleasures of pedophilia. By going to uneasy extremes, C.K. aims to reorient our moral compasses. But the wishy-washy places he ultimately ends up at in during I Love You, Daddy aren’t up to par with his best efforts. This is a controversy-courting work whose transgressive edges are too often dulled by C.K.’s shrug-shouldered gentility. Throughout, he may not believe things will work out, but he really, really wants them to.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 7–17.