I Love You, Daddy is Louis C.K.’s homage/rip-off of Woody Allen’s Manhattan. It’s got the same black-and-white cinematography, the same thick-rimmed black glasses, and, most importantly, a creator who’s in the same kind of hot water for his extremely questionable personal life. And given the sexual assault revolution we’re currently embroiled in, it’s one of the most disturbing movies you’ll never see.
The now-disgraced comedian — who recently faced a cornucopia of abuse allegations — stars as Glen Topher, a hotshot TV writer whose daughter, China (Chloe Grace Moretz), is about to turn 18. While casting for his new show, Glen meets famed actress Grace Cullen (Rose Byrne), who invites him and his daughter over to her house for a party. There, China locks eyes with 68-year-old director Leslie Goodwin (John Malkovich), Glen’s hero — and a rumored child molester.
Like The Day the Clown Cried, Jerry Lewis’s unreleased 1972 Holocaust film about a German clown sent to a Nazi concentration camp, I Love You Daddy’s subject matter is toxic given the current cultural conversation and C.K.’s own bad behavior. It’s no wonder, then, that The Orchard, the film’s distribution company, has opted to bury it. (At Lewis’s request, The Day the Clown Cried has famously never seen the light of day.)
And while it’s not as hard to score a copy of I Love You, Daddy as it is The Day the Clown Cried — Harry Shearer is basically the only person to have ever seen Lewis’s epic trainwreck, likely because as he wrote in Spy magazine in 1992, “This movie is so drastically wrong, its pathos and its comedy are so wildly misplaced, that you could not, in your fantasy of what it might be like, improve on what it really is” — it’s not readily accessible, either.
Before I Love You, Daddy disappears into the ether, though, three members of our staff — film critic Tim Grierson; Deputy Editor Alana Hope Levinson; and Staff Writer C. Brian Smith — were able to screen it through various means.
They recently traded notes on their reactions…
Levinson: I honestly don’t know where to start. As a (former) Louis C.K. fan and person who works in media, I’d heard the rumors for years — and have always believed them. So I could never take the movie seriously as anything other than a cynical attempt to absolve himself of some guilt. When my friend mentioned he had a screener and we watched it together, I was horrified to find it was exactly that, almost eerily so.
Grierson: I saw I Love You, Daddy at its world premiere on September 9. At that point, nobody knew a thing about the movie, other than that Louis C.K. had made it in secret and that it had a pretty amazing cast. When C.K. came out before the screening, he told us nothing about the story, just that he had shot it in June and that we were the first audience anywhere to see it. Like a lot of other people there, I was a big fan of his stand-up and his shows, especially Louie and Better Things.
Smith: I’ve always been a fan of Louis C.K., so I found the film to be pleasantly nostalgic in some ways, which I realize is problematic. In that way, it was a bit like throwing on a pair of old, comfortable jeans that are now stained and tattered. Of course, it’s stunningly brazen that of all the stories Louis C.K. could have chosen to tell, he chose this one.
Grierson: It wasn’t until Malkovich’s acclaimed director character comes on screen and is introduced as someone rumored to date underage girls that you could sense a collective, silent “Oh my god” from the audience. It was clear C.K. was going to go there — mostly talking about his love of Woody Allen but also, maybe, sorta discussing the rumors about himself that he’d never publicly acknowledged about masturbating in front of female comics. Even in Toronto, this shocked people. When The Orchard picked it up for distribution at the festival for a huge price, $5 million, we all thought, “There’s no way they’re making their money back.”
Levinson: How right you were.
Smith: C.K.’s 17-year-old daughter is named China. He gave his daughter a pornstar name! She spends most of the film prancing about making rich-girl demands. Can we talk about how many times she says “Daddy?”
Levinson: And how she’s in a bathing suit for no reason in a Manhattan condo. And how he checks out her ass.
Grierson: Glen is so freaked out about Leslie dating China that he doesn’t actually realize that he’s been a terrible father. He’s so desperate to get her approval that he spoils her and lets her walk all over him. She knows this, which is why she treats him the way she does.
Levinson: Agreed Tim, but it’s kinda frustrating, that trope — girl with the shitty dad fucks a guy her dad’s age because she has daddy issues and wants to get back at him. China has zero agency in the movie, and I don’t think that’s unintentional.
Smith: At one point, Glen defends Malkovich’s character, despite his alleged dubious past, saying, “You shouldn’t say stuff like that about someone you just hear stories about. His private life is nobody’s business.” How did that line land with you guys?
Grierson: I never thought of Glen as a guy we’re supposed to admire or think is in the right. So when he says that about people’s personal lives, it felt like the sort of thing a person who’s never had to deal with the implications of predatory behavior in his real life says — until, that is, China starts dating the director.
Smith: The parallels to C.K. IRL are stunning, no?
Levinson: Oh yeah. One parallel no one has talked about is Edie Falco’s character, Glen’s producer, whose job is to deal with his insane bullshit and cover up for him. The first scene she breaks down crying in his office and says, “I do everything you ask. You ask me to dangle a horse from a helicopter, and I just do it. And we never even ask, ‘What happens to the horse? Do you know how traumatized it must be?’” I was like, “WOW, this guy knows exactly what he’s doing.”
Smith: “We donated $10,000 to PETA,” C.K. responds defensively.
Levinson: That’s like Weinstein when he apologized by donating his life to politics. It’s uncanny.
Smith: I laughed a lot at that scene. Again, though, I found that laughter to be problematic.
Levinson: It’s less funny to me because I’ve felt like a horse. I saw that as a metaphor for women in the entertainment industry, women he’s abused. Maybe it’s a stretch. But he uses Edie to cover up for his bullshit as he did Tig Notaro.
Grierson: I can’t speak for C.K.’s intentions, but I think he’s trying to express his (and his character’s) situation, which is that he’s consumed with fear about his daughter (who he’s poorly raised) making a mess of her life with an artist he admires but now realizes he can’t just worship from afar.
Smith: Tim, can you speak to the film technically? It’s shot in black and white and on 35mm film. Eric Kohn of Indiewire wrote: “The movie is exquisitely directed, filled with stunning moments of mysterious beauty and dark twists, not to mention an old-fashion orchestral score that enhances the melodramatic dimensions of the material.” Do you agree?
Grierson: C.K. has said that he’s a fan of old-fashioned Hollywood studio-system films, which is why the movie has the black-and-white look and orchestral score. Of course, it also makes you think of Manhattan.
Smith: Do you think it works?
Grierson: Mostly. It does look great. And the score is decent. It’s very self-consciously old-school, though, in a way that doesn’t completely work.
Smith: Alana, what do you think about these storylines in general? Should this be a no-go area? I mean he tries to fuck his daughter’s 17-year-old friend.
Levinson: Look, I love Manhattan. I just don’t understand why we need to rehash a similar idea now. Surely there are other stories that should be told, that haven’t been, like maybe that of China or her friend he tries to fuck. Have you ever seen a movie from the perspective of a young woman dealing with a predator/daddy type? (I don’t want to give away my screenplay idea!)
Grierson: The Diary of a Teenage Girl comes to mind, which is great. But to your point, Alana, yes, this is a story that’s been told before from the male perspective many times.
Levinson: That’s why so many men are shocked by what’s happening in the news. This is the first time the narrative has been flipped in such a big way. If more women were making movies, surely there’d have been one about a Weinstein character who jacks off into a potted plant. There’s a lot of power in what stories are told, why they’re told and who gets to tell them. Especially in 2017.
Smith: Is there any redeeming quality about I Love You, Daddy?
Levinson: I think a redeeming quality is seeing into the psychology of someone like C.K. There’s potential there to learn about how people justify actions, etc. I immediately noticed he has female characters around him — like Grace, who’s played by Rose Byrne — telling him his daughter’s relationship is okay. That feels like a go-to move for most predators IRL. The enablers, the people who cover.
Grierson: For me, what’s “redeeming” is that it’s an unfiltered look from C.K. about these issues. What’s interesting about the movie’s backstory is that, in another world, this could have been a very triumphant story about an independent filmmaker using his clout and own money to make a small, personal story. This is the sort of thing that’s just about impossible in Hollywood anymore. Unfortunately, I Love You, Daddy argues why, sometimes, you need people around you to say “no.”
Levinson: Were there no other writers on this project?
Smith: None credited.
Grierson: This is all him. He edited it, too. It’s very much made in the same way that Horace & Pete was made. Very guerrilla-style by himself.
Smith: Do you guys think he’ll ever make another film?
Grierson: I do think he’ll be able to make something later down the road. Hollywood is a very forgiving place. Mel Gibson is currently in a hit family comedy.
Levinson: Also involving daddies — insane. But yes, C.K. will make another movie. Probably about his downfall and recovery.
Smith: I’d watch the fuck out of that.
Grierson: The Rose Byrne scene is one of the most interesting in the film. Grace and Glen have a conversation where he tells her how upset he is that Leslie and China are dating, and she explains to him that maybe he should give his daughter more credit for being smart about the choices she makes in her life. I think it’s meant to be a surprise to hear that rationale coming from her. And I think it’s meant to suggest that Glen needs to stop coddling his daughter and thinking he knows best for her. It doesn’t entirely work, but it’s a very Louie-type scene: Giving us the exact opposite perspective than we think we’d hear at that moment.
Levinson: Yeah. Best scene in the movie. I wish there had been more of it. Rose was great. Tim, who was your fave character and why?
Grierson: Glen. As I mentioned in my review at the time, C.K. doesn’t have great range as an actor, but he’s good at playing beleaguered. (He did it all the time on Louie.) The journey that character goes on in the movie — having his preconceived notions about art-vs-artist debunked, realizing that he’s kind of a hack and coming to terms with the fact he’s a bad father — is laid out with a lot of messy candor. That scene with China’s friend that you mentioned, Brian — it’s interesting in that it shows how susceptible he is to the same creepy, awful urges that Malkovich’s character practices. In a lot of C.K.’s work, the Louis character has to learn what a shortsighted fool he is. He definitely does that here.
Levinson: To me, the ending felt easy—it’s so similar to Crimes & Misdemeanors. It didn’t feel authentic, but maybe I’m projecting.
Grierson: It’s such a C&M ending.
Grierson: That hasn’t been talked about enough. Even down to two men wearing tuxedos side-by-side.
Levinson: Yes! the exact shot. But Crimes and Misdemeanors is all heart. There was something lacking in this movie. None of the relationships felt real to me. That’s maybe why it came off as cynical to some.
Grierson: The Charlie Day stuff is awful. Edie Falco isn’t given enough to do. Ditto Pamela Adlon, whose Better Things is her brilliant creation and shouldn’t be sullied by C.K.
Levinson: Completely agree.
Smith: Bottom line for me? I found myself wrestling with the same question Sarah Silverman raised about Louis (and Savannah Guthrie raised about Matt Lauer): “Can you love someone who did bad things? Can you like something made by someone who did bad things?”
Levinson: Absolutely, but not when they gaslight everyone for five years and threaten to ruin the careers of their victims. And especially not a friend. It’s not just the abusive incident. It’s everything after.
Grierson: As a critic, this is a complicated question for me. I’ve spent my life under the belief that lots of terrible people have made lots of amazing art. And that I’m not reviewing the artist, but the art. But recently, I’ve been pondering the privilege of that position: It doesn’t take into account the real harm that these people do to other people. I don’t have a firm answer for that anymore. It’s something I’m still pondering and processing.
Levinson: I guess I think his art isn’t so singular we can’t get it from someone else. And I say that as a fan. Maybe one of the women he masturbated in front of is capable of creating work just as important and great and lovable.
Grierson: And that’s the dark, terrible possibility.