I was supposed to review I Love You, Daddy. I screened the film on Tuesday of this past week. On Thursday, the New York Times published a bombshell piece, detailing allegations against the movie’s writer/director/star, comedian Louis CK. Five women accused him of sexual misconduct, including trapping them in rooms and forcing them to watch him masturbate. In the wake of this report, The Orchard announced that they will no longer be moving ahead with plans to release the movie on November 17.
I Love You, Daddy is about Glen Topher, a successful television writer who can’t bring himself to impose boundaries on his 17-year-old daughter China (Chloe Grace Moretz). She manipulates him into letting her do whatever she wants, including skipping school to have a second spring break in Florida, right after returning from the first. Glen’s resolve is challenged when China becomes enraptured with Leslie Goodwin (John Malkovich), an aging Woody Allen-esque filmmaker long rumored to have a thing for underage girls. The story’s central question is: When faced with his daughter potentially sleeping with a sexual predator, will Glen finally start enforce some rules?
Rumors about CK’s behavior have been around for years. I was aware of them when I screened the film. That’s what made it so shocking. Removed from the comedian’s actions and viewed solely as a piece of art, there is much to enjoy about it. The performances, especially Moretz’s, are quite good. There are some genuinely funny scenes. The film is artfully made, shot in luscious black-and-white, and scored with old-fashioned continually-swelling orchestral music that serves to comment ironically on the edgy things taking place onscreen.
That said, it’s really hard to view I Love You, Daddy that way. Anyone familiar with the accusations will instantly recognize that this is Louis CK flaunting his own demons. His comedy career has always been about pushing boundaries and making audiences uncomfortable by baring his darkest, most unhinged thoughts. This time, he does that in the form of a two-hour movie.
The first time we see Moretz, she is wearing a bikini that would make a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model feel needlessly exposed. She remains in that state for close to ten minutes. It’s a way of sexualizing China from the get-go. (Moretz, it should be noted, is twenty.) You don’t think of it right away because Leslie hasn’t been introduced yet, but that choice implies that he’s justified in lusting after her. We immediately see her as a sulty figure.
Once they meet, Leslie openly admits he likes young girls, but he speaks of his predilection with such eloquence that China starts to think it’s perhaps not such a big deal. We aren’t sure whether he will successfully seduce her with his words and intelligence, or whether she’s savvy enough to see through the charade.
Roger Ebert used to have a saying: It’s not what a film is about. It’s how it is about it. In other words, you can’t criticize a movie for its subject matter, only for the way it handles that subject matter. On the surface, the Leslie/China relationship is worthy of exploring. These things happen. Glen’s anxiety over his own inability to be an effective parent is equally worthy.
The troublesome aspect of I Love You, Daddy is that, in the end, CK’s message seems to be that people should be allowed to do their thing without anyone making too big an issue of it. He tries to soft-pedal that with a resolution that avoids all the ickiest possibilities inherent in the theme. At the same time, the audience is notably robbed of seeing Leslie face any consequences. He gets off scott-free and we’re supposed to believe China is okay at the end. I don’t buy it.
It should be pointed out that Louis CK has not been accused of anything inappropriate involving a child. His victims were all grown women. Nonetheless, it’s fairly apparent that the film is (intentionally or subconsciously) about the sort of behaviors that led to the accusations. Leslie is a variation of him, China is the women he has attempted to dominate with his career power and influence, and Glen represents the part of him that can’t quite seem to stop behavior he knows is sketchy.
In a more overt nod to himself, there is a scene where Glen’s comedian pal Ralph (played by Charlie Day) pantomimes masturbation while Glen is on the phone with an attractive actress (Rose Byrne) and a female colleague (Edie Falco) looks on. CK has been accused of masturbating for real while on a phone call with a woman. By generally letting Leslie and Ralph off the hook, he is letting himself off the hook. too.
I’m not entirely sure how I feel about I Love You, Daddy. As much as I hate to admit it, there is a perverse fascination in watching an artist so publicly address his own bad behavior. And, again, from a filmmaking point of view, it is well-made and effectively acted. On the other hand, I find CK’s actions morally reprehensible, and his movie’s suggestion that sexual perversions just need the freedom to play themselves out is appalling to me. It shows no concern for victims of such perversions, just as he showed no concern for the women he put in such an untenable situation.
Were there no sordid behavior on Louis CK’s part, it’s possible that I might have recommended the film as a risk-taking look at an overly-permissive father struggling to put his foot down when his teenage daughter becomes wrapped up in something so troubling that he can’t ignore it. Then again, I Love You, Daddy probably wouldn’t exist without its maker’s sordid behavior. Separating the art from the artist is impossible this time.
That makes the movie worthy of being shelved.