Louis C.K. returns to the director’s chair for the first time since 2001’s Pootie Tang. Though not quite up there with his best TV work, I Love You, Daddy is a hilarious, awkward and boundary-pushing comedy about fatherhood, anxiety and the ethics of relationships.
Fans of C.K.’s comedy drama series Louie should know largely what to expect from his new film. But though it shares the same deadpan observations, family themes and mid-life anxiety of his TV work, I Love You, Daddy is in many ways more pessimistic work than the beleaguered warmth of Louie. Glen (C.K.) is a TV writer in the ascent, with a successful show just renewed and another newly commissioned. His seventeen year-old daughter, China (Chloë Grace Moretz) is coming to stay with him after spring break, while his buddy, a comic played by It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Charlie Day, cracks vulgar jokes about what China might have got up to on Spring Break.
Juxtaposed with the vulgarity and sex humour is an art deco design that evokes Golden Age comedies, along with with Robert Miller and Zachary Seman’s classic Hollywood score. I Love You, Daddy is shot in rich black and white 35mm, an aesthetic that works best whenever Rose Byrne’s charming actress Grace is on the screen. Byrne, embodying the glamour of classic Hollywood stars, inhabits the frame like a true screen icon – the TV-oriented C.K. and Charlie Day less so.
The film itself consciously invokes Woody Allen’s Manhattan, and both Glen and his hero-cum-nemesis, celebrated director Leslie Goodwin (John Malkovich), are both inspired from different elements of Allen’s artistic and public persona (not to mention that of Roman Polanski). Goodwin, a well-known ‘perv’ with a taste for young girls, is a deeply problematic character, and sure to provoke the most heated discussion, not least because of the rumours of sexual harassment currently dogging the film’s director. Leslie is a rumoured paedophile, but Glen warns his daughter not to judge people based on unsubstantiated rumours. To Glen’s immediate and hypocritical chagrin, China approaches Leslie and begins a friendship with him, charmed by his worldliness and his apparent genuine interest in her opinions, a quality lacking in the other man in her life.
Leslie makes no bones about finding young women attractive, but the film never reveals if the darker rumours about him are true. And while his intentions towards China hardly innocent, on the surface they do not seem predatory, either. The film resists simplistic didactics, with Glen’s unease at their relationship stemming just as much from a discomfort with his daughter’s sexual autonomy as a desire to protect her from harm. Nevertheless, the nature of Leslie’ relationship with China, and the issues it raises, is undeniably uncomfortable.
I Love You, Daddy is destined to be a divisive film, and like the Allen films to which it pays tribute, will be invariably judged in relation to the current controversy surrounding its author. But in its tackling of difficult themes, infused with C.K.’s unvarnished introspection, his latest is among the most complex and mature comedies of the year.