Louis C.K. put his award-winning, critically acclaimed, hit FX series “Louie” on indefinite hiatus two years ago, claiming he wanted to do something else for a while. This raised a few eyebrows, since “Louie” has always been more like an eclectic collection of short films than a conventional sitcom. If C.K. wanted to overhaul the show entirely, there’s no reason why he couldn’t have just made an entirely new set of characters, themes, and ideas for his new “Louie.”
But it’s hard to argue too much against what the writer-director-comedian has done with his career since the last (for now) “Louie” aired back in May of 2015. He wrote and directed the strikingly unusual web series “Horace and Pete,” which blends Eugene O’Neill and Norman Lear into its depiction of the sad-sack characters who congregate at a Brooklyn bar. And now he’s made the challenging, at-times mesmerizing feature film “I Love You, Daddy,” which he shot in secret earlier this year with several of his usual collaborators.
“I Love You, Daddy” stars C.K. as Glen Topher, an Emmy-winning writer-producer struggling to balance the stress of raising his spoiled 17-year-old daughter China (Chloë Grace Moretz) with the demands of his latest project — a dramedy about nurses that he sold to a network before he really had a strong idea of what he wanted it to be. For about the first 20 minutes, “I Love You, Daddy” is dispiritingly flat. C.K. slowly grinds through establishing Glen’s lax parenting and chaotic work-life. At home he’s pushed around by China, who’s about to graduate high school with no plans for college or a career. At the office, he’s constantly interrupted by the crude, arrested-adolescent star of one of his comedies (Charlie Day), his conscientious producing partner (Edie Falco), and pregnant actress Grace Cullen (Rose Byrne), who wants him to cast her as his lead nurse.
The movie lurches to life once Grace invites Glen and China to a party at her house in the Hamptons, where he meets one of his heroes: Leslie Goodwin (a perfectly cast John Malkovich), an acclaimed filmmaker known for his good taste, his charming eccentricities, and for escaping a child-molesting scandal with his career intact but his reputation in tatters. Glen has always defended his idol against the tabloid gossip, arguing that since the courts never prosecuted him, no one really knows what happened. But his opinion changes once China becomes the new, willing object of Leslie’s affection.
A few questions leap to mind once “I Love You, Daddy” introduces this wrinkle. First, and most obvious: Is Leslie Goodwin supposed to be Woody Allen? The answer to that is just as obvious: Of course he is. But he also represents any number of genius-level artists with appalling proclivities… including, potentially, C.K. himself, who has been accused (also never in court) of sexually assaulting women.
The second question is trickier: What’s C.K. trying to say about Allen? The audience is meant to empathize with Glen’s anxiety over what his daughter might be doing with Leslie… but only to a point. Leslie is presented as a frequently charming individual; and in his interactions with China, she comes across as far more mature and even sophisticated than she ever seems when she’s around her doting dad.
In what’s sure to be the movie’s most controversial scene, Grace stands up for the rights of a 17-year-old — who, she points out, will be a legal adult when she turns 18 in a month — to have her heart broken and even her sexuality awakened by a man old enough to be her grandfather. Is C.K. letting Allen and his ilk off the hook by giving this speech to one of his female characters? Or are he and his co-writer Vernon Chatman acknowledging that teenagers have been screwing around, screwing up, and learning valuable life lessons for generations, without parental approval?
Really, what’s most exciting about “I Love You, Daddy” is that it seems to dare TV and movie bloggers to write tongue-clucking hot takes about it — while, at the same time, defying any simplistic unpacking of its “message.” This isn’t a film that offers progressive art-house audiences very many applause lines (aside from one particularly sharp barb aimed at Donald Trump). It doesn’t tell viewers what Louis C.K. thinks; it only says what Glen Topher thinks. And even Glen changes his mind a lot.
And now here’s the third question: Why tell this story in a movie, and not as an episode or even a whole season of “Louie?” One of the arguments against C.K. continuing his TV series was that in the later seasons many episodes were becoming aimless and self-indulgent, and too loaded down with scenes that were essentially loaded dialectics. Those same criticisms could be leveled at “I Love You, Daddy.” The film is too shapeless and slackly paced to be truly great. (Pretty much everything to do with Glen’s inability to write his half-baked nurse show feels like wheel-spinning.) And the most memorable “set pieces” are just long, contentious conversations.
But C.K. and his cinematographer Paul Koestner don’t waste the space of the larger cinema screen. Shooting on 35mm black-and-white film — in a simultaneous homage to and poke at Allen’s “Manhattan” — the director and his crew keep coming up with ways to make the most of the format. In one scene, Glen gets a haircut, and wears a striped barber’s bib that fills the frame with thin, straight strips of black and white. In another, Leslie stands in front of Glen’s black marble walls, looking all the more like an ethereal artist when framed by the stone’s wispy white streaks. C.K. and Kostner play a lot with visual textures, whether they’re having China deliver a melancholy monologue while wearing a rain-soaked, dripping party dress, or whether they’re literally watching Glen sweat as Grace scorches him for his retrograde paternalism.
C.K. favors long takes, which suits his typically snappy dialogue better, but which also allows the viewer time to take in every detail in a scene. The decor, the lighting, the positioning of the characters… these all matter as much to C.K. as what they’re saying. And these elements are best-contained in the biggest frame possible.
Really though, the best argument for Louis C.K. making this rumination on parenting, hero-worship, scandal, and “Manhattan” into a two-hour movie instead of a handful of “Louie” episodes is that he has the clout, the cash, and the curiosity to do whatever he wants as an artist. What makes “I Love You, Daddy” at times frustrating but ultimately enthralling is that the whole picture feels like an exploration — and one where not even C.K. knew where he was going when he started shooting.
C.K.’s not pushing buttons here to be bratty; it’s more like he’s genuinely trying to figure something out. At one point, Glen tries to argue that China’s relationship with Leslie is wrong because of “math.” But if this movie has any definitive statement to make, it’s that human beings aren’t numbers, and that if we want to honestly debate morality or romance or anything else, we’re better off working through it together as people, instead of just pointing to a spreadsheet. [B+]