“We were working to get it right for you guys,” Louis C.K. says, addressing the crowd at the sold-out Saturday afternoon premiere of I Love You Daddy, the “secret” movie the stand-up/showrunner/filmmaker slipped into the Toronto International Film Festival’s lineup without build-up or warning. By “you guys,” he didn’t mean the public at large, or even the overall populace of this fine Canadian metropolis, though he did give the city a shout-out (“I come here, and I tour, and I’m not just saying that to make you like the movie, but I like playing here.”) No, C.K. specifically meant the people assembled at this one screening, right here, right now; we were the only crowd, he noted, that would go into this movie without any before-hand knowledge or preconceived notions. You could tell he wanted that second-hand shock-of-the-new buzz. After this screening, he also probably knew that all anyone would focus on would be the “uh ohs.”
Dropping a made-on-the-down-low movie and/or TV show is the new unannounced-album-hitting-the-Internet-at-midnight, an increasingly attractive prospect for C.K. and other filmmakers who can convince creative collaborators to keep a secret. “When no one knows you’re doing something, no one cares,” he noted later in the Q&A, and the ability to create something far from the madding crowd and free of Internet chatter has its blessings, to be sure. No one is going to question why you’re making a movie in which Casey Affleck spends the majority of a movie under a sheet. Or if, say, making a cringe-comedy about salacious rumors and what happens when the artist you’ve spent your life admiring has some serious moral blind spots is a hot button that you’re safer off not pushing.
Safe is not a word that anyone will associate with I Love You Daddy – not now, not later, not when it eventually hits a theater near you. Not regarding the way it was made: shot on black and white 35mm film, featuring an original old-school orchestral score recorded at Abbey Road studios and self-funded from, C.K. claims, Horace and Pete cash. (It was picked up on Monday by the distribution company The Orchard.) And certainly not regarding the subject matter, which gleefully jumps into the fray surrounding several very public scandals. When we meet C.K.’s Glen Topher, he’s the sort of rich, entitled schlub who acts like he can’t believe the luck he’s had in show business, except he totally can. “You divorced me while I was a loser, so you lost,” Topher tells his ex-wife, as they negotiate where their precollegiate daughter, China, will spend the rest of her senior year when she gets back from spring break. He’s just sold another TV show. His deluxe apartment is decorated in what might be called shabby middle-aged celebrity chic.
And when he arrives back at said well-off bachelor pad, with his vulgar sidekick in tow (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia‘s Charlie Day, the movie’s impish resident Id), his kid is already there, waiting for him. Played by 20-year-old Chloe Grace Moretz and done up for maximum teen-Lolita effect, the movie introduces her lolling around in a bikini, at which point you begin find several trains of thought colliding violently into each other. Is C.K.’s camera straight-up ogling the young woman, or is that simply how we’re reading it? Or is this completely in character for China, who’s learning how to weaponize her feminine wiles while playing up her daddy’s-little-girl affectations so Dad will let her do whatever she wants? Are we supposed to feel this uncomfortably complicit watching this? Can all of these notions be equally correct, response-wise? Get used to this conflicted feeling. You’re going to be experiencing it a lot.
You may also notice, while Topher and his long-suffering producing partner (Edie Falco, perfection) spar over his blasé attitude towards scheduling, a giant movie poster behind his desk, trumpeting “un Film de Leslie Goodwin.” You won’t find him on IMDb, but he’s apparently “the most important filmmaker of the last 30 years.” This is Glen’s idol, the reason he got into this racket. When our sad-sack hero and his daughter are invited to a party by the pregnant starlet (Rose Byrne) who wants to work with him, they happen to see a bald, goateed old man standing by her picture window. It’s Goodwin, in the flesh. He’s played by John Malkovich, who’s mere appearance out of nowhere provides its own punchline. Someone mentions that this titan of cinema has a penchant for underage girls. Hey man, they’re just rumors. Besides, he’s, like, a real artist. Then Goodwin begins to take an aggressive interest in China.
Once that fuse is lit, I Love You Daddy goes about the business of playing with fire in earnest. It’s hard not to notice Goodwin’s similarities to certain real-life auteurs, specifically a European Oscar-winner and, most prominently, a man C.K. has worked with in the past. The comedian explained postscreening that the movie originated when he and writer-producer Vernon Chatman began discussing stories about people – “People,” C.K. vigorously re-emphasized, in a way that suggested both numerous sources of inspiration and a we-all-know-who-we’re-talking-about-here wink – whose work they loved but may have some problematic baggage. He later mentioned that, after he gave Day the script, the actor called him up and asked, “So the guy in the movie is totally Woody Allen, right?!?” (“Woody is an ingredient, along with a whole other generation of dudes who used to go up and down the age line a lot more easily,” C.K. would tell The Hollywood Reporter.)
There is, of course, a lot of other things to mention about the film – that it’s gorgeous, and hilarious (Falco’s rant about hiring a helicopter to dangle a horse over the ocean is priceless) and poignant, that it’s throwback credits and score deliberately evoke Old Hollywood classicism, that there’s a messiness here that occasionally reads as sloppy moviemaking and more often than not gives the proceedings a sense of dangerous vibrancy. And once Malkovich’s pass-agg predator invites Moretz to Paris for a mind-opening trip and C.K. is forced to take some sort of stand, the real meat of the story – why the need to set boundaries and the will to lay down the line for your kid needs to be established early – asserts itself into the center-stage spot. (An alternate title for this: Parental Guidance Suggested.)
But what will draw the most heat, naturally, are the bigger-picture “what if” aspects I Love You Daddy asks you to confront, both in terms of reconciling your feelings about various now-icky veterans and maybe even the movie’s creator himself. C.K. filmed this quick and dirty last spring; it just happens to be hitting the public at the moment that some unflattering allegations have been resurfacing. The single most autobiographical exchange in the film, however, is Moretz saying “I don’t know” and Malkovich replying “That’s the most honest answer you can give.” That’s always been a central C.K. M.O.: Bring up the question and don’t pretend you have an absolute answer. Was that 2014 Louie scene between him and Pamela Adlon (also here, also great) a portrayal of rape even if they say it isn’t? I don’t know, man, sex is complicated and there was consent and boundaries get blurred. Can you separate the artist from the art? I don’t know, man, shit is complicated and people are fucked up and I wish I could just watch Manhattan in peace.
No one is really trying to embed this kind of dialectic in their work, certainly not at C.K.’s level. Four years ago, I Love You Daddy would have been a stand-out three-episode arc of Louie, with a few dozen less “fucks.” Instead, he’s just given TIFF one of the strongest audience-baiting, throught-provoking, gut-busting conversation-starting entries of the festival – a minefield that’s worth skipping through even as the shrapnel threatens to blow back at him and you.