In order for
I Love You Daddy to work it must function on two levels. One way is we follow the narrative where director, screenwriter, and star Louis CK plays Glen Topher, a successful television presence (much like CK himself). We watch as Glen, a pathetic man who makes mistakes and doesn’t get it, is shuttled between opinionated women. We watch as Glen makes little progress himself, and as his faults open the film for women-lead (maybe) discussions on sex, gender, and feminism. And we watch him be, as CK always is, not such a bad guy. I Love You Daddy revels in Glen’s faults, but while gently critical (in a near-didactic way), it’s never condemning.
Conflictingly, however, is the second aspect of the film: that of CK as creator. Where we watch Glen be a loser, we know CK has crafted him as such. When we watch the women in his life challenge his thoughts and actions, we know they are merely mouthpieces for CK’s dialogue. The result is the marriage of self-flagellation and smug superiority which make up I Love You Daddy: the controlled representation of fault with a smirk that says, at least I own up to it. (Notably, this film was cancelled by The Orchard in light of allegations of sexual misconduct. C.K. has since released it on his website. I viewed it from a screener.)
Yet owning up to something is rarely enough, and the bar is no longer that low. The film focuses on Glen as he works on a new television series. He meets actress Grace Cullen (Rose Byrne), who wants to star in the show, and after a tiff with his 17-year-old daughter, China (Chloë Grace Moretz), where he “mansplains” (his word) feminism to her, Grace suggests they both come to her party to mend things. This is where the father and daughter meet director Leslie Goodwin (John Malkovich). A Woody Allen-esque figure who dates young girls and is surrounded by rumours of child molestation. Glen admires him (and excuses the allegations) while China is repulsed by him. However, when China and Leslie begin spending more time together, she’s won over — much to Glen’s chagrin, as he must confront his own admiration of the man. Unable to separate the art from the artist when the situation becomes personal, Glen struggles with how to come to terms with the relationship.
Ultimately, the ruminations about the sex in
I Love You Daddy are relatively shallow. CK never truly ventures into the power dynamics of a revered filmmaker and a high school student, so the challenge becomes a binary of parental guilt and discomfort, instead. When Glen and Grace argue about China’s relationship, it boils down to “age is just a number”, Grace submitting that China has her own agency when Glen expresses fatherly concern. And again, uncomfortably, it’s hard to forget that both angles come from CK’s mind. The debate feels more like a monologue, with CK unable to create speech that feels natural in the mouth of someone’s other than his own.
But the worst example of this is by the end of the film, when Glen has a conversation with China’s friend Zasha (Ebonee Noel). As Zasha, the most obvious site of CK’s ventriloquizing, reassures Glen that it’s normal for China to have had a crush on Leslie, she references other older men they had had crushes on: a teacher, a cousin, and Glen himself. Glen, dazedly taking it in as she tells him that China was the “real pervert”, not Leslie, and that in fact, “everybody’s a pervert, I’m a pervert, we’re all perverts”, tries to put his hand on her knee before she moves away.
Coming on to the 17-year-old girl who rejects him, CK places Glen, once more, into the humiliating position of loser. But with his messy web of sexual relations, he’s confirming that which Zasha has already explicitly expressed: he’s a pervert. Is it so bad if she is too? In a scene just before, China is the one to come on to Leslie, and he rejects her. Perhaps we are all “perverts” and perhaps we are all “losers”, whether you’re a schlubby guy like Glen, or a hot teen (and we know she’s hot, as every character has to comment on it) like China. CK’s sense of superiority then comes from his “ability” to bloodily present his — our — failings and mistakes.
I Love You Daddy tries to show us that we all are bad deep down: in the end Glen is no better than Leslie (or CK no better than Allen), and neither of them are better than China. Perhaps none of us are.
But the thing is that this isn’t an “us” situation. Not everyone exploits their power and position for sexual gain, nor do we all make these “mistakes”. This is about CK and his attempt to draw us in lessens the bite, opens us all up for critique and makes CK’s self-flagellation that which must be done universally. But then we can praise him for because he has done it before us, openly. As a result,
I Love You Daddy reads much like CK’s apology for sexually harassing numerous women, but it’s only an empty reflection on the abuse of power, which is just as focused on CK’s self-proclaimed stature as a great comedian as it is about his regret for how his actions make him feel.
There’s never an apology, nor is there a mention of what can be done to change things, if anything. In his film, CK does the same as he always has: he presents his (talented, successful) protagonist making mistakes, but acknowledges that they are mistakes. CK draws attention to sexual harrassment problems while indulging in being able to have such problems.
But more uncomfortable than CK’s consistent presentation of himself as just a normal guyis how events play out in I Love You Daddy. When Grace asks for an interview with Glen, she expresses how much she adores his work. When Glen is on the phone with her, his friend Ralph mimes masturbating as he hears her voice over the speaker. In CK’s letter of apology, he wrote: “The power I had over these women is that they admired me. And I wielded that power irresponsibly.” Glen never goes as far as CK did. The admiration of an actress becomes mutually desired dates and career opportunities. The masturbation in her presence is a joke which she never has to participate in. CK, in his exploration of his supposed faults, re-writes himself to be no longer a man who exposed and pleasured himself in front of women less established in the comedy world than him, impeding their careers and causing trauma.
With this mild version of Hollywood misconduct in mind, is there true value in the vapid discussions of sexuality that CK regurgitates into the mouths of his actresses? Or is there value in the presentation of himself as a loser who truly isn’t a bad guy, since we all make mistakes? Soft criticism of himself, as well as everyone else, cushions any point the film could have made, had it been made by someone else. For after CK’s confirmation of his history of sexual harassment, it’s difficult to accept his narcissistic exploration of how we’re really all just perverts, no exceptions.
The comedy in
I Love You Daddy is flat (mainly based on over-using the word “fuck” and bland sex jokes in sequences so extended that it kills the humour). Aesthetically the film is too derivative to be interesting (the black-and-white cityscape homage to Allen’s Manhattan gets old fast). CK’s self-flagellation (which is truly more of a self-forgiveness) cannot be read outside of his actions. With such a lazily done product of resuscitated visuals and humour without wit (or timing), we can hope there will be no efforts to consume I Love You Daddy outside of its context. Perhaps we can be comforted by the fact that I Love You Daddy is bad, as we won’t have to reconcile the problem of separating the art from the artist.