Revisiting Louis C.K.’s I Love You, Daddy After the Revelations

Photo: The Orchard

The back of the screener sent to journalists for Louis C.K.’s now-canceled movie, I Love You, Daddy, features a quote from a piece I wrote in September: “A movie we’ll be dissecting all year, and honestly, laughing about.” A friend texted me a photo of it two days after C.K. issued his lengthy, misguided non-apology admitting, “These stories are true” after five women told the New York Times that he’d masturbated in front of them. “Prophetic,” my friend texted. “Well, the first part is certainly true.” I looked around for a wall to hit my head against.

I’ve long been accustomed to quotes from pieces of mine being taken out of context and put on movie promotions. Usually I don’t mind. It’s pretty fun. But here the missing context was particularly glaring. The piece I’d written about I Love You, Daddy at the Toronto International Film Festival hadn’t been the rave that quote makes it seem to be. It wasn’t even a review — nor is this piece. I was just offering up my reaction as one of few reporters who’d seen the movie the first and only time it screened for public audiences. And that reaction was confusion. I knew, well before that Times report came out, that other women had accused C.K. of sexually violating acts. But I’d also found the movie to be taboo-busting and discomfitingly funny, in a way that made me feel like a terrible feminist. C.K. plays a father having a nervous breakdown about his 17-year-old daughter (Chloë Grace Moretz) hanging out with a 68-year-old filmmaker idol of his (John Malkovich) — a known lech who’s still celebrated in Hollywood despite the rumors that he fucked a child, and who’s most definitely a stand-in for Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. Other women wrote about coming out of the screening feeling nauseous. I wrote about laughing. And here I was, one of two women being trotted out as a legitimizing force on the back of this screener (along with Manohla Dargis of the New York Times) — and now feeling sick.

It’s hard to think about laughing at C.K.’s movie now, perversely or not, but two months ago it really did seem like an applause-worthy critique of Hollywood and the industry’s tolerance for the blatant transgressions of powerful men. It’s still not wrong! Toronto was pre-Harvey, pre-Spacey, pre-Ratner, when none of us — including C.K., apparently — thought that the bad behavior of powerful white men would ever come with consequences. I just didn’t get that C.K., while playing a guy who is trying to protect his daughter from one of Hollywood’s bad guys, might have been wrestling onscreen with his own ability to get away with things, as a powerful transgressor himself.

I had personal misgivings about C.K.. Where there’s smoke from multiple sources, there’s fire — that kind of thing. But I can also see now that I was afraid to take too hard of a line, when the rumors about him were still in the form of blind items — while writing about his movie that is about the dangers of believing unsubstantiated rumors about people. (C.K.’s character, Glen, a successful movie producer, loses everything because he can’t stop obsessing over Malkovich’s Leslie hanging out with Moretz’s China.)

I was afraid because the power dynamics of this industry affect entertainment journalists, too. (See: Disney trying to ban the L.A. Times from pre-screening its movies as punishment for a negative business story, which was far more overt and public than what normally happens.) So you make up a line in your head and hope you chose the right one, which for me at Toronto was to acknowledge the rumors around C.K., and then to follow journalistic best practices and not try him in public for something I didn’t know. Personally, I found it weird and brazen for someone so linked to such rumors to make a movie that includes a 68-year-old Hollywood legend who’s known for sleeping with underage girls; Rose Byrne’s movie-star character, Grace, defending the rights of underage girls to date older men; and Charlie Day’s character miming masturbating first while Grace is on speakerphone and continuing, vigorously, even while Edie Falco’s producer character enters the room. The movie seemed daring, like playing with fire. Now it seems like C.K. both wanted to get caught and was arrogant enough to think that he never would.

I’ve gone through my old write-up and reexamined it through the lens of what we know about C.K. now. I hope you find it as instructive as I have.

THEN: I wrote, “C.K. is obviously trying to provoke here, in his first time directing a movie since 2002’s ingenious hip-hop satire Pootie Tang.”

NOW: The sentiment about “trying to provoke” stands. More curious is, why would he make this movie — this kind of apologia for men with bad reputations, men who are beset upon by rumors that the movie suggests are often unfounded or overblown — as his first foray into feature-film directing in 15 years, and his first as an “auteur”? And why would he make it under a veil of secrecy so profound that not even his own publicist knew it existed until it got into Toronto? How did he explain his vision to the people who agreed to be in it, the majority of them women: Moretz, Day, Falco, Byrne, Malkovich, Helen Hunt, Pamela Adlon? (Day has since issued a statement that he will not promote the movie, and Moretz’s publicist confirmed that the actress had pulled out of promotions two weeks before the Times report. It seems clear that the cast feels an incredible sense of betrayal, as they should. Besides those two, only Adlon, who is C.K.’s writing partner, has released a statement about feeling “devastated and in shock.”)

THEN: 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 re-asks 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 [masturbated in front of] other female comedians. (‘I don’t know why she said what she said,’ C.K. told the Times.)”

NOW: How ironic that Daddy has now become a movie — if it ever sees the light of day — that will force the question of whether anyone can watch it and separate the art from C.K. as the artist who masturbated in front of multiple women. The twist here is that he made a movie that’s so full of the icky behavior of men it’ll be impossible to watch without thinking of what he did. Again, the question arises: Why would you make a movie about perverts if you yourself are accused of being a pervert? The answer I keep coming around to: arrogance. This movie is the act of someone who thinks he’s getting ahead of the story, who believes he can make something that almost smacks of being an admission and still take a $5 million distribution deal with the Orchard (I name the distributor because there’s no way they didn’t know), and still make money from releasing it — which he was DAYS AWAY FROM DOING when the Times story broke and the Orchard dropped out — because he is too big to fail.

THEN: “Think about it: If C.K. had made a movie that hadn’t taken on the nature of rumor-mongering 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.”

NOW: Actually, the vast majority of the press did give him a pass, myself included. When he was asked about the rumors at Toronto and denied their veracity, as he’d done before, we accepted that as his final word. We wrote about whether the movie was inspired by Manhattan and about Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, rather than about himself.

THEN: “What’s frustrating about Daddy isn’t that C.K. goes into this territory [men’s bad behavior, plus rumor-mongering], 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.”

NOW: I’m pretty proud that I saw the movie as “self-aggrandizement being passed off as self-flagellation” even in my confused state back then. It basically sums up everything I felt about C.K.’s non-apology, in which he goes as far as to admit culpability, but not far enough to say “I’m sorry” to the women whose careers and lives he hurt. Reading his statement on Friday felt like watching that scene of Paul Bettany whipping his own back in The Da Vinci Code. C.K.’s many iterations of “I’m terrible” in that statement, juxtaposed with a sentence about how it was a rare thing for him to pull his dick out in front of women without asking (while using the word “dick,” while thinking it would be okay if he had asked) don’t seem to have any sense of personal reflection (much like the movie itself). He’s shielding himself. He’s saying, “You can’t shit all over me because I’m going to shit all over myself first.”

THEN: “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.”

NOW: Yeah, I feel okay with that paragraph.

Some stray observations about the movie, because you’re unlikely to ever see it:

C.K.’s character Glen is a riff on his very successful self: a TV writer-producer at the top of his game. 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!’”

— Hunt’s is a nothing character, the shrill ex-wife who shows up once in the beginning to get screwed over and once at the end for an “I told you so.” Looking at it now, there’s a kind of crowing nature to the scene. It at once sets up C.K. as this hard-working genius who scrapped his way up from nothing, his wife as someone who lost out, and his daughter as a vapid gold-digger.

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. Unlike Manhattan, though, it’s never clear that China and Leslie are dating, per se (despite the many stories I’ve read saying they are by people who don’t seem to have seen the movie). Leslie pays a creepy amount of attention to her. He tells her he’s more interested in her mind than her “perfect body.” They bond in the women’s department of Barneys, where Leslie says he hangs out because “all of Manhattan’s elite girls go here and I like to look at them. I’m a pervert.” He even takes her on a trip to Paris, just the two of them, and they both tell C.K.’s Glen he’s out of line and gross for asking if they’re fucking. Then at the end, China tries to make a move on Leslie and he rejects her, as if he’d never encouraged her affections and she’s a silly girl for getting it all wrong. I’m reminded of the egoism of that line from C.K.’s non-apology: “The power I had over these women is that they admired me.”

— At the time, I thought that the difference between Allen’s and C.K.’s work is that Allen turns inward, always mining his own neuroticism with characters who are very thinly veiled versions of himself, while C.K.’s work is more outward-looking and distant, like a treatise on the impossibility of policing the bad behavior of men in general. Post-revelations, I’ve begun to wonder if the movie was actually a confessional — and a wish. Day’s character all but reenacts an incident from 2003 in which comedian Abby Schachner says C.K. was masturbating while on the phone with her, which hadn’t been made public until the Times report. C.K.’s character comes off foremost as a guy who is trying to be a good dad, but who keeps making mistakes while guided by his penis, such as sleeping with a movie star (Rose Byrne) who’s supposed to be starring in his new series. And Malkovich’s character becomes a kind of hero because he’s open about his perversions. That’s the wish. It’s the same territory he’s been churning through on Louie for years. Surely, a guy who’s trying this hard and being this honest about his own shortcomings can’t be lying to us, or himself — or manipulating us to look the other way.

Early on, C.K. as Glen calls himself out for “mansplaining” feminism to China before anyone else can accuse him of it. It’s a reminder of how often C.K.’s comedy has veered into feminist territory, about how bad men are and what saints women are to put up with them. I’ve long loved his bit marveling at the courage of women who go on dates with men, considering that men happen to be the No. 1 threat to them, globally and historically. Was it a cover-up for something darker all along?

—Also eye-opening: when Glen’s TV-actor best friend, Ralph (Charlie Day), wins Malkovich’s Leslie over by asking: “Hey, did you really fuck that kid like everyone says you did?” Leslie dodges the question, but promises to tell Charlie the whole story over a drink sometime, while C.K. as Glen looks on in shocked admiration that this guy gets to be a known lech and be celebrated, too. Meanwhile the actual C.K. was doing the same thing, and even making a movie about it.

Malkovich is marvelous, playing one of his most iconic creeps, as is Edie Falco, as Glen’s exasperated producer. If you can stomach all the rest, I’d say see the movie for their performances, if there’s ever an opportunity again to see it.

C.K. does indeed casually toss 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.’ Just want to point that out.

— The moment I found the most shocking and fascinating was not the mimed-masturbation scene but the argument over statutory rape and consent that starts when Glen, while in bed with Byrne’s Grace (the leading lady in a TV show he’s writing) frets that China might be sleeping with a man 50 years her senior, and that she’s too young, at three weeks away from her 18th birthday, to be competent to give consent. Grace then confesses that she dated a man in his 50s when she was 15 (likely Leslie), and asks who Glen is to judge women’s abilities to determine who they want to be with. Glen can’t help telling Grace, “You were raped.” It does not go well.

At the time, I thought it was C.K.’s way of chastising men who don’t see women as capable of making their own decisions about their own bodies. And it seemed like an interesting point. Now, all I can think about is how Byrne must feel, having given that speech, knowing what we know.

— The movie’s one shot of unadulterated truth may be when Glen — after spending the whole movie freaking out about what Leslie and China might be doing together — hits on his daughter’s 17-year-old female friend, almost unconsciously, and then recoils in disgust and shock about what he’s just done.

Or perhaps it’s the moment when Glen has been iced out by his daughter and his love interest and is being told that he’s a terrible father by Adlon’s character, and just blurts out, “I’m sorry! Yes, I’m sorry, women. All women.” That line basically sums up my big problem with the movie: It felt like an overly generalized “all men are horndogs, what are you going to do?” shrug from a man who was tired of being piled upon and just wanted it all to go away.

Revisiting Louis C.K.’s I Love You, Daddy