Louis C.K. objected ever so slightly when the Toronto International Film Festival’s Cameron Bailey described I Love You, Daddy as “essentially a film made in secret.” “I just didn’t tell anybody I was making it,” C.K. said, “and if you don’t tell anybody, nobody cares what you’re doing.” (It helped that C.K. funded the entire thing himself with the profits from his web series Horace and Pete, so there was a minimum of industry chatter.)
But it was clear that the movie’s black-box path to the festival—few even knew it existed before it was added to Toronto’s lineup, and the festival’s program note was absent any detail about its plot—was not simply a matter of declining to beat the drum in advance.
Before the film started, C.K. informed the crowd that they’d be “the only audience in the history of the world” to see the movie without knowing what it was about, and about half an hour in it became clear why keeping its premise under wraps was important to him: From the moment the first post-screening tweets hit the internet, the story of a TV producer whose teenage daughter starts hanging around a revered art-film director who’s been dogged for years with unresolved accusations of pedophilia and rape, it was clear that I Love You, Daddy will always be viewed through the lens of a specific film-world controversy. As Charlie Day, nasally paraphrased by C.K., put it when he read the script, “This is about Woody Allen, right?”
As incarnated with reptilian cunning by John Malkovich, the movie’s Lesley Graham is part Allen and part Roman Polanski—and, inevitably, part C.K., who has himself been accused of sexual abuse and harassment. Shot on 35 mm black-and-white film stock, with a lush orchestral score and curlicued opening titles, I Love You, Daddy is styled like a classic Hollywood movie, but its moral murk is decidedly contemporary. C.K.-ian, even. C.K. puts his character, who is wealthy and respected but running low on inspiration, on both sides of every argument, and sometimes in the middle. When his daughter China (Chloë Grace Moretz) says that he’s stifling her independence by not letting her take his jet to Florida, he lectures her on the meaning of feminism, then accuses himself of mansplaining before anyone else can. In an argument about the age of consent, he has Rose Byrne’s movie star argue that she was fully in command of her faculties when she had sex as a 15-year-old with a man in his 50s, and it’s C.K. who holds to the line that it was rape even if she said yes.
I Love You, Daddy is likely to squick some people out whether or not they’re aware that C.K. has himself been accused of nonconsensual sex acts. But it’s especially queasy when viewed in that light. C.K.’s Glen idolizes Malkovich’s auteur, much as C.K. reveres Woody Allen, and one way of looking at C.K.’s movie is as a kind of Manhattan answer record, extending and undermining that film’s romantic portrait of a romance between a middle-aged man and a teenage girl. (Moretz even bears a passing resemblance to Manhattan’s Mariel Hemingway, and at one point, she tries on an outfit that evokes Sue Lyon in Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita.) When Glen’s daughter asks him how can spent time with a man who’s been accused of raping a child, Glen defends his cinematic idol by saying that you can’t judge people you don’t know on their private lives—an argument that rings as self-serving for both C.K. and his protagonist. But when China starts spending time with Lesley, Glen’s suddenly not okay with ambiguity. As C.K. explained in the post-screening Q&A, the idea for the movie sprang from the question of how the slack we cut great artists for their personal failings might shift when the matter of their present conduct is no longer an abstraction. Or, as C.K. put it, “What if he was fucking your daughter?”
I Love You, Daddy came into Toronto without a distributor, and though it was picked up today by The Orchard for $5 million, it will probably be a tough sell in theaters. (C.K. has said that he does want a traditional theatrical release, and will not, at least initially, be releasing it via his website.) The movie has plenty of laughs, especially if you’re fortunate not to find Charlie Day’s comic style the equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard. But if it doesn’t feel, as some predicted, like an extra-long episode of Louie, it’s also not quite a fully formed movie, more like a series of scenes clustered around a loose set of thematic concerns. It’s also less provocative than it is tiresome, rehashing an already entrenched debate rather than framing it in a new way. Malkovich is great, especially as a foil to C.K., meeting his frenzied, incoherent moralizing with leisurely ripostes and frank admission of his own perversions. When China asks what he’s doing in the women’s department at Barney’s, Lesley explains that he’s there to stare at the pretty young girls, and points out several lurking men doing the same thing. Glen, by contrast, can’t even admit that the new TV series he’s sold but can’t seem to start writing will never come to fruition, although for one hilarious heartbeat near the end of the movie he comes close to confronting the fact that when it comes to having the hots for teenagers, he and Lesley aren’t so different after all. You can’t help being a pervert, but at least you can be honest about it.