“Everybody’s a pervert.” So says one woman to Glen (Louis C.K.) in “I Love You, Daddy,” C.K.’s sweeping black-and-white cringe comedy, but in this movie’s self-contained universe that’s a given, because everybody’s an extension of its lead character’s twisted perceptions.
As the writer, director and star, C.K. expands the awkward, introspective humor of his now-defunct F/X show to a grander cinematic terrain, but otherwise it may as well be an exuberant two-hour installment of that same program. Shot on glorious 35mm film with a wry style that emulates 40’s-era classic Hollywood, “I Love You Daddy” echoes Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” in that the vibrant, antiquated style strikes an odd contrast with its anti-hero — a neurotic, disaster-prone middle-aged man in the midst of self-destructive circumstances with little hope of redemption.
As with all of C.K.’s output, “I Love You, Daddy” displays a stunning degree of ambition: it’s alternately sad and silly, provocative and philosophical, with an underlying poetic quality that fuses together the constant shifts in tone. It’s also his most outwardly problematic work for reasons that have less to do with the caliber of the filmmaking than ideas behind it.
“I Love You, Daddy” is certainly a slicker achievement for the prolific comedian than his last traditional feature, 2001’s cult favorite “Pootie Tang,” yet it exists in the shadow of new expectations. On his show, Louis was always a bit of a struggling comic trying to get by, and the image lost its currency as his profile expanded; with “I Love You, Daddy,” he has written a character closer to his own success, an ultra-rich TV writer coping with the carefree behavior of his spoiled teen daughter China (Chloe Grace Moretz). The 17-year-old moves in with her father during her senior year, fleeing the less exciting life with his ex-wife (Helen Hunt, glimpsed in two scenes) and exploiting his inability to prevent her from doing anything other than exactly what she wants. It’s a sitcom-ready concept that C.K. slowly elevates to a fresh level of discomfort.
Days after returning home from spring break in Florida, China begs Glen for permission to go back, and he quietly acquiesces, as if her superficial claims of affection have brainwashing powers. After she expresses her affection for him several times over, his goofy comic actor pal (Charlie Day, riffing on his own rascally persona) puts the conundrum in blunt terms: “If she loves her daddy, that means you’re doing nothing.”
It’s an innocuous situation until Glen, attempting to woo a prominent actress (Rose Byrne) to his developing medical show, follows her to an exuberant Hamptons gathering and brings his daughter along. It’s there that they both encounter Leslie (John Malkovich, perfectly cast), a revered older filmmaker whose legacy has been marred by rumors of a past affair with a minor. Needless to say, Leslie shows little interest when Glen showers him with praise, but the enigmatic figure takes an immediate interest in Glen’s daughter. Before long, they’re strolling together through the garden and engaging in heavy conversations about the history of radical feminism that’s at once grotesque and ironic. Later, Leslie develops a closer relationship with China riddled with ambiguity, as the pair travel to Paris together while a helpless Glen struggles to take control of the situation — and figure out exactly what’s going on. Is this a taboo romance of the “Lolita” variety, or is he seeing things?
Are we? C.K.’s entire movie — a self-financed passion project he shot in total secrecy — appears to have been constructed as a dare, completed within a window of time in which a handful of media allegations involving his sexual harassment of female comedians has complicated many fans’ relationship to his work. Even as “I Love You, Daddy” delivers a pitch-black, tonally sophisticated riff on the paradoxes of fatherhood, it’s almost too self-consciously conceived as a rejoinder to anyone taking issue with his work because of rumors about his behavior. “You shouldn’t say things about someone’s private life when you don’t know them,” he tells his daughter when she initially brings up Leslie’s past discretions. However, once Leslie takes an interest in China, Glen finds himself troubled by the same issues he tried to wave off in the first place.
As with Allen’s “Manhattan,” C.K. develops Glen’s world as a mixture of sleek fantasy and harsh truths. The stunning cinematography highlights the old-fashioned high society world he inhabits at every turn, but it also enforces a dreamlike quality to the proceedings, as if the events all stemmed from the overactive imagination of a guy whose love for vintage studio movies — which seems to have informed his lifestyle as well as his professional ambitions — overwhelmed his relationship to reality. The movie has a kinship with Guy Maddin’s surreal, feverish cinematic patchworks, which also channel the images of earlier film eras into stranger contemporary ruminations. But as a whole, “I Love You, Daddy” belongs to C.K.’s own peculiar aesthetic, in that it’s brilliantly calibrated to captivate viewers and make them recoil at the same time.
No matter how it makes you feel, however, the movie unquestionably succeeds as an actor’s showcase. C.K. does his usual sad sack routine, but Moretz has never been more engaging as a spirited young woman either clueless to her father’s concerns or icily ambivalent towards them; Malkovich does his usual first-rate wise man routine, while an always welcome Edie Falco crops up in a handful of scenes as Glen’s vulgar but ever-faithful producing partner. Pamela Adlon, who played C.K.’s on-again, off-again girlfriend on his show, returns as his spirited ex to boss him around. Byrne’s nubile star serves as an object of Glen’s affection, but her wide-eyed admiration for his writing skills is so cartoonish it suggests a hidden agenda. These characters inject a liveliness and unpredictability into every scene, as they push Glen to take control of his life from every possible angle even as he remains a frustrated introvert incapable of doing anything other than making matters worse.
Setting aside questions about C.K.’s own behavior, “I Love You, Daddy” suggests a grim world view. 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.
But C.K.’s screenplay (co-written Vernon Chatman) doesn’t always make the textured approach feel earned. Despite the fancy wrapping paper, the movie mostly still amounts to a familiar portrait of bruised masculinity. “I guess I was mansplaining, or whatever,” Glen sighs after attempting to explain feminism to his snarky daughter. “I Love You, Daddy,” with its shiny surfaces and doleful anti-hero, operates within the temperament of that tossed-off remark. It’s an absorbing and intelligent accomplishment, but never too keen on answering the hardest questions that it poses from the start.
“I Love You Daddy” premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.