Movie critic Ty Burr saw “I Love You, Daddy” at the Toronto Film Festival in September. These were his thoughts about it then, prior to the sexual abuse revelations about Louis C.K.
TORONTO — Louis C.K. is projecting more than his new movie at the Toronto International Film Festival. He’s put the rumors swirling around his own possible past peccadilloes into a movie and onto a figure we can all more or less agree on. What the movie doesn’t say says as much (if not more) than what it does.
But enough with the obfuscation. C.K.’s new film, called “I Love You, Daddy” and shot on the down-low this past June, is a farce about a TV comedy writer named Glenn Topher (Louis C.K.) who becomes outraged when his spoiled 17-year-old daughter (Chloë Grace Moretz) becomes besotted with a sixty-something filmmaking legend played by John Malkovich.
“I Love You, Daddy” is an old-school affair in more ways than one. It’s shot on film rather than digital, and lustrous black-and-white film at that. In its rapturous classic feel, highlighted by 1930s-era opening credits and a full-throated 80-piece orchestral score recorded at Abbey Road Studios, the new movie bears a suspicious familiarity to a canonical 1979 film in which a legendary filmmaker played a TV writer who has an affair with a 17-year-old schoolgirl.
That film, of course, is Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” (1979), a much-loved highlight in the director’s filmography that nevertheless has caught hell for four decades for its depiction of the relationship between Allen’s forty-something Isaac and Mariel Hemingway’s high school sweetheart. Given Allen’s 1997 marriage to his partner’s adopted daughter and the unproven allegations of child abuse that have shadowed the director for decades, it’s not surprising that “Manhattan” has become tarnished in recent years.
For all the concordances, though, “I Love You, Daddy” is a bleak but very funny comedy, and “Manhattan” and Allen went unmentioned when Louis C.K. took the stage at the Ryerson Auditorium Wednesday night for an audience Q&A after the film. He claimed he shot the film in black-and-white because he was tired with the look of digital; he acted out the plot of the 1933 pre-Code classic “Baby Face” as a way to acknowledge the complexities of his various influences.
Buried even further down were issues of whether the comedian made the film as a way to confront rumors of his own possible sexual misdemeanors.
Unsubstantiated allegations of sexual misconduct involving Louis C.K. and women have circulated on the Internet; comedian Tig Notaro, whose Amazon series “One Mississippi” was executive produced by C.K., recently suggested the star should “handle” the rumors regarding his past behavior. In a recent interview with The New York Times, he dismissed the allegations as “rumors, that’s all it is.”
If that’s the case, “I Love You, Daddy” is an entertaining but massively conflicted essay on rumors and truths, one that doesn’t resolve much of anything. The film’s anti-hero is an outgrowth of the Louis C.K. persona of a middle-aged screw-up who gets everything wrong, especially his relationship with his teenage daughter, whom he believes (against all evidence to the contrary) is still an innocent child. It’s an incisive, even damning portrait of a dad unable to say no as long as his daughter says “I love you, Daddy.”
In fact, the daughter, China, is a drifting adolescent who’s easily drawn to Leslie Goodwin, the film director her father has idolized for years. Malkovich is deliciously witty playing a gifted old perv who bears no obvious resemblance to cultural bugbears such as Allen or Roman Polanski, and the film brings on various female voices — “Better Things” star Pamela Adlon as Glen’s raucous, truth-telling ex-girlfriend, Rose Byrne as a movie star and the writer’s newest crush — to argue both sides of the coin. At its sharpest, “I Love You, Daddy” is neither a defense nor a condemnation but a social comedy that seeks to give all its characters a measure of autonomy, even the girl on the edge of adulthood.
Yet not everything washes, especially the (anti-) climactic scene in which the daughter throws herself on her aging crush and he refuses to rise to the jailbait, his own established history to the contrary. For all of Leslie Goodwin’s rumored predations, he’s a neutered aesthete in practice. What’s Louis C.K. saying here? That “we never know” the truth of the celebrity misbehaviors we vilify on Twitter or in the pages of People magazine? That seems a dodge, a rationalization, at worst a lie.
But the salutary aspect of “I Love You, Daddy,” intentional or not, is that it puts the issue on the table and forces us to argue it out with ourselves and with each other. That’s only if we’re willing to engage, though. The TIFF audience I saw the film with roared their approval without seeming to go too deeply into the heart of the matter; “Daddy” is a formally sloppy but conceptually audacious movie whose genuine laughs disguise the areas in which it fears to tread.
At the Q&A session after the screening, Louis C.K. talked about how he made the new movie with the proceeds from his online series, “Horace and Pete” (whose costar, Edie Falco, is more than memorable as Glen’s about-to-explode production partner in “I Love You, Daddy”). He talked about everything, in fact, except about how his caustic new film addresses (or not) things he may have done.
Which raises the question: When does an entertainment become a confession? And if it does, does that disqualify it as entertainment, or even art? The sublimated message of the TIFF “I Love You, Daddy” screenings may be that the conversations — and the projection — are only beginning.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.