I feel like a bad feminist for saying this, but I felt totally fine after catching a screening of the wildly talked-about new Louis C.K. movie, I Love You, Daddy, at the Toronto International Film Festival. I wasn’t angry, I wasn’t nauseous that the movie centers around C.K., playing, as always, a version of himself — this time trying and failing to be cool about his 17-year-old daughter (Chloë Grace Moretz) having a relationship with a 68-year-old (John Malkovich), who’s clearly a stand-in for Woody Allen. I also laughed at a bunch of one-liners, and admired its black-and-white aping of ’40s screwball comedies, and the way characters refer to other characters as “retards” while set to jaunty classical music. Then again, I’ve watched every recent Woody Allen movie, and only get triggered because I find the filmmaking lazy and boring, so take that as my sensitivity barometer.
C.K. is obviously trying to provoke here, in his first time directing a movie since 2002’s ingenious hip-hop satire Pootie Tang. Daddy is a bit like a sprawling Broadway musical (without the music) episode of Louie, in which the comic explores the question of whether it’s possible to separate an artist from his work, and then reasks the same question with a twist: “What if he was fucking your daughter?” (as C.K. put it in a post-screening Q&A). This is dancing-on-minefields territory for C.K., whose own rumored reputation as a pervert has been graphing off the charts lately, after former ally Tig Notaro said he needed to “handle” allegations that he’s engaged in sexual misconduct around other female comedians. (“I don’t know why she said what she said,” C.K. told the Times.) That misconduct has included unsubstantiated accusations, from Roseanne Barr, among others, of masturbating in front of unwilling women.
Think about it: If C.K. had made a movie that hadn’t taken on the nature of rumormongering and men’s bad behavior, he’d be facing a Twitter deluge of people calling him out for hiding something, and the press being accused of giving him a pass — which is what happened to Woody Allen the last time he had a movie at Cannes. What’s frustrating about Daddy isn’t that C.K. goes into this territory, but that he doesn’t go far enough. There’s nothing so specific that it really hits home or feels like personal reflection. This is self-aggrandizement being passed off as self-flagellation; every character shits on C.K.’s character till he hits bottom and learns his lesson — and all it feels like is C.K. showing off that he’s smart enough to think of any argument you could make against him and then make it against himself first.
Ultimately, Glen manages to ruin his relationship with almost every woman in his life, but he loves his daughter, so he couldn’t possibly be a bad guy, right? In the world of Daddy, male transgressions never have ill intent; it’s just that men are dumb and say and do stupid things because they listen to their dicks — but some, like Malkovich’s character, are charming and smooth enough to get away with it. The movie makes the same sort of “Man, these are contentious times, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯” argument C.K. does in his interviews. Such as when he told the Times earlier this week, “They’re rumors. That’s all,” rather than acknowledge that, if the rumors are this prevalent, there might be something he needs to examine in his behavior around women. For a guy who’s so fearless about calling out male privilege in his stand-up (like in that all-time classic joke about how it’s a miracle that heterosexual women even go on dates at all, given that the number-one threat to their existence is men), it’s a pretty glaring, hypocritical no-go zone.
This is a movie we’ll be dissecting all year, and, honestly, laughing about; it’s mighty sharp. Here are some talking points you’ll need to know:
• It was filmed in “secret” this June. C.K. financed the entire thing with profits from his web series Horace and Pete, and also edited it himself, which some critics think was a mistake. But it does seem intentional that the first time anyone heard of its existence was when TIFF announced they’d be showcasing it, without releasing a single line of description.
• C.K. is definitely riffing on a version of his very successful current self. His character, Glen, is a TV writer-producer at the top of his game, and the opening scene is him sitting at lunch with his ex-wife, played by Helen Hunt, as she tells him that their daughter, China (Moretz), wants to live with him for her senior year because he has a huge apartment and a private plane. “None of that is my fault,” he says. “You divorced me when I was a loser, which is why you lost!”
• China is a ridiculous name, and C.K. knows it. Asked by his screenwriting idol, Leslie Goodwin (John Malkovich), whom he meets at a party, why she’s named that, Glen says, “Her mother named her.” “And you just stood there?” Leslie asks.
• Comparisons to Woody Allen’s Manhattan, which is also filmed in black and white, about a 42-year-old dating a 17-year-old, and features lots of montages, are apt. The difference, I’d say, between Allen’s and C.K’s work, beyond the profanity, is that Allen usually turns inward to critique intellectual neuroticism and small groups of privileged people making bad decisions, while C.K’s work is far more outward-looking; he’s critiquing big societal themes through tales of small groups of privileged people.
• The first sign that this is going to be, in large part, a movie about the way men often fail women comes in the first act, when Glen and China get into a fight after he tries to explain feminism to her — then acknowledges that he was “probably mansplaining” before anyone else can accuse him of it.
• The setup of that fight is pretty great. Father and daughter are watching a horror movie starring Glen’s new actress crush, Grace (Rose Byrne), whom he’s just met, and who, in this movie-within-the-movie, is playing a femme fatale who takes off her top for a guy and then slits his throat. China thinks it’s the definition of feminism, an example of how women can “fuck back” and “be in the power position.” Glen explains to China that feminism doesn’t come from rejecting and hating men, but from women finding strength within themselves. Below, a probably inaccurate recollection of my favorite part of their exchange:
Glen: I thought I was watching a romantic comedy, and then it turns into this horror show! That’s how this works? She takes off her top and slits his throat?
China: Would you rather he rape her?
Glen: I wish there were one other option.
• Later, Malkovich’s screenwriting legend Leslie, who also has a reputation of sleeping with underage girls, also mansplains to China the difference between “garden-variety feminism” and radical feminism — the former, he says, is about women getting ahead in existing systems, and the latter is about destroying the patriarchy — and she, of course, finds it charming.
• The moment when Glen chastises China for spouting off nasty hearsay about Leslie’s reputation sounds like C.K. directly addressing his detractors: “You shouldn’t say things about people when you’ve just heard rumors.”
• As everyone presumes, Malkovich’s character is definitely based on Woody Allen, with some aspects of Roman Polanski. Glen’s TV-actor best friend, Ralph (Charlie Day), wins him over by asking: “Hey, did you really fuck that kid like everyone says you did?”
• C.K. both wants to take on the viciousness of rumormongering — it’s Glen’s presumptions about Leslie’s relationship with China that ruins his life — and the idea that perhaps lechery only happens in cases where it’s unwanted. In other words, if Leslie is creeping on a 17-year-old, can that really be considered creeping, if the young woman enjoys it and is three weeks away from no longer being a minor? It’s a lot of jumbled ideas and justification that ultimately doesn’t work, because Leslie is a goddamn creep! Whether or not he touches her, it’s weird of him to invite China on a trip to Paris with him. Not to mention that they first start getting close when she runs into him in the women’s department of Barney’s, where he tells her straight out that he’s there because “all of Manhattan’s elite girls go here and I like to look at them. I’m a pervert.” So of course she tries on a bunch of bikinis and Herve Leger dresses for him, as he narrates what she looks like in each of them (“Russian slave trader”). Later, she reminds him that she’s 17. “Oh, I thought you were 16,” he replies.
• Yes, C.K. casually tosses off the N-word; it’s his way of explaining what Pamela Adlon’s character (an ex-girlfriend of Glen’s who’s still in China’s life) means when she says China is so tan it looks like “a [insert other very offensive slang word] came all over you.”
• You’ve heard right: There is a scene in Glen’s office where Charlie Day mimes jacking off, very, very realistically, to express his excitement that Glen’s TV show got picked up and he’s going to be meeting with Grace the movie star, while in the presence of Edie Falco’s hilariously beleaguered production manager. I thought it was pretty funny.
• There’s a hint of C.K. challenging the audience to look at whether this movie, or any of his new work is actually good, or whether we’re conditioned to praise it because we like him and we’re used to praising it. Glen has gotten a 12-series fall pickup for his series about nurses that not even he is excited about, on the basis of a pilot he doesn’t like, with scripts he hasn’t written, and episodes that are probably going to be impossible to make on time. As Ralph tells him: “Fuck you, dude, you’re a fucking machine! You could turn in shit and they’d eat it up.”
• Really, the moment that everyone will be talking about is the argument over statutory rape and consent that starts when Glen starts fretting to Byrne’s Grace about China possibly sleeping with a man 50 years her senior, saying that she’s too young, as a minor who’s about to turn 18 in three weeks, to be competent to give consent. Grace confesses that she dated a man in his 50s when she was 15, and asks who he is to be judging women’s abilities to determine who they want to be with. It feels like C.K.’s way of chastising men who see women as incompetent beings who need constant protection. Still, Glen can’t help telling Grace, “You were raped.” It does not go well.
• If you have any doubt what C.K. has been up to the whole time, near the end of the movie, Glen — having been iced out by his daughter and his love interest, and being told that he’s a terrible father by Adlon’s character — just comes out and says it: “I’m sorry! Yes, I’m sorry, women. All women.” Big growth moment, or facile generalization from a guy who’s tired of being piled upon and just wants it to end? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ You decide.