The following review is part of our coverage of the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.
The r-word gets tossed around a few times in I Love You, Daddy, the feature-length film that Louis C.K. wrote, directed, funded, and edited in almost complete secrecy until it premiered at the 2017 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival. One character uses it to insult other people. Another uses it in hyperbole to describe an over-the-top situation. There’s no more context to it than that, no setup or followup. It’s not even on the level of the “hoisted by our own r****rd” gag from the Veep pilot, where a cruel pun spins into a joke about the hypocrisy of what you can say in public vs. private. These characters simply say the r-word in passing. And every single time it happened at the press screening I attended at the festival, the audience erupted into gleeful laughter, as if Lars Von Trier had conjured the ghost of George Carlin, probably did something nefarious to it, and then combined their powers to say the single most hilariously provocative thing that had ever been uttered on film.
I am not a fan of this word, although I don’t want to ban it. I don’t want to hamper anyone else’s creative or political freedom by saying that they shouldn’t use it, but I will certainly exercise my own freedoms of that same nature by saying that it’s almost always a choice that is morally and artistically bankrupt in some way. It’s a word with little nuance, and its place in our lexicon hasn’t evolved much at all. It was used as a medical description for people with disabilities, and then it shifted into an insult – either direct or indirect – for that same population.
Thanks to my neurology, it’s also a word that can and has been used specifically against me. Now maybe I’m just a humorless social justice type, and everyone else laughed at those jokes because they’re simply more sophisticated film viewers who appreciate the uncompromising bravery that it takes to drop an r-bomb in our stifling PC culture. Or maybe they just like the insult, and were feeling pretty gleeful about getting a chance to get to laugh at it while assuring themselves that they’re doing so for art. Or maybe they laughed because it’s easy to remain intellectually detached from this kind of art when you’re at no risk of being the target. Or maybe I just took offense to the laziness of it. I’ve certainly heard funnier and more creative iterations from some of the people who have called me a retard.
Whatever the case, I bring this particular word up not because it’s the most egregious and/or daring aspect of I Love You, Daddy – there’s plenty of mimicked jacking off in front of weary female colleagues, awkward discussions about feminism and statutory rape, and an n-word to go around if you’re into any of those things, and some of them are funny in their presentation – but because it’s emblematic of the issues with the work as a whole. It’s a film in which provocations are punchlines and treading into potentially offensive territory is an end in and of itself. It consistently pushes every boundary it comes across, and then just sort of stands there and shrugs about it.
Shot in lush 35mm black and white with a sweeping score, Louis C.K.’s return to the big screen (the last film that he wrote and directed was 2001’s Pootie Tang, long before he established himself as perhaps the greatest current auteur of television comedy) follows TV writer and producer Glen Thrush (C.K.) as he struggles to make some sense of life and all of the women in it. His 17-year-old daughter China (Chloë Grace Moretz) has just moved in with him and he’s incapable of saying no to her, even if it means taking his jet back to Florida mere days after she returned from spring break, as long as she keeps cooing the film’s title in his direction. He’s just sold a new TV series about nurses, but he hasn’t started writing it yet, leaving his faithful but overworked business partner (Edie Falco) delivering hilariously weary monologues about the trials of dangling horses from helicopters and keeping up with all of his creative demands. A-list star Grace Cullen (Rose Byrne), a soon-to-be single mother, has taken an interest in both Glen’s show and Glen himself, and that maybe seems like the one thing that could be going complete right in his life. That is, until Grace hosts a party attended by creepy older filmmaker Leslie Goodwin (John Malkovich).
At first, Glen shrugs off Goodwin’s reputation for liking underage girls. They’re just rumors, he insists, and you don’t really know what happens between two people. Besides, Goodwin is his hero. He even has a giant poster of one of Goodwin’s films framed behind his desk. But his convictions are tested when Goodwin starts to turn his attentions toward his 17-year-old daughter – and when she appears to share his interest.
Glen handles this about as well as he handles every other part of his flailing existence, and spends the rest of the film bumbling through his career, his ideals, and his fraught relationships with the women in his life, with mixed results for both himself and the audience. Some of these moments are funny (a bumbling conversation that Glen tries to have with China about feminism ends in his half-sarcastic concession that he was “mansplaining”), and some can be interesting (the similarly bumbling conversation that Glen has with Grace about her adolescent sexuality), but none of it is particularly provocative in any way. And there just aren’t enough high points to make up for the status quo navel-gazing that permeates the story. Falco and Charlie Day, who barrels through the proceedings like a bizarro-world Jiminy Cricket as Glen’s filter-free friend and colleague, are consistently droll. Moretz and Malkovich put in some inspired work in their own right. But the rest of the film is all over the place in terms of its quality and vision. By the time that Glen is flippantly apologizing to “all women,” it’s clear that neither he nor his creator intend to take their world anywhere new, let alone shocking.
There’s a truly brilliant premise buried in C.K.’s film. Goodwin is clearly based on Woody Allen (with maybe a hint of Roman Polanski thrown in), and tackling the issues surrounding this sordid character in a film that so fondly references Allen’s Manhattan is a fascinating way to explore the concept of separating the art from the artist. But much like every other idea that’s thrown at viewers in I Love You, Daddy, it doesn’t really go anywhere once it’s introduced. It’s just another flippant, self-indulgent provocation in a story already packed with them. This indirect hemming and hawing about predatory men in showbiz is made all the more frustrating by the fact that this film was made at a time when the persistent rumors surrounding Louis C.K.’s own conduct with women were resurfacing. (If you wanted to be provocative for the sake of being provocative, you might say that C.K. responded to rumors that he trapped women and masturbated in front of them by trapping audiences in a theater and metaphorically whacking off for two hours.)
I Love You, Daddy is sporadically amusing, and it will definitely have its uses as a conversation starter in the years to come, but it’s disappointing that in his push for pure creative freedom, Louis C.K. does so little with it. He took his status, his talent, and his funds from making Horace and Pete, worked in almost complete secrecy, premiered the film at a major festival with little to no outside influence, and the result is a film that does more to recall the old Onion article about Marilyn Manson going door to door, desperate to try to offend people, than it threatens to break any truly innovative ground. Surely with this level of financial and creative heft behind it, I Love You, Daddy shouldn’t feel so intellectually and emotionally far behind its cinematic peers.