I Love You, Daddy (Louis CK, 2017)
Gene Topher (the man of the hour himself, Louis CK) plays an über-successful television writer with a Larry David-“Curb Your Enthusiasm” sized tendency towards slacking, enabled by his energetically crass hanger-on actor buddy (Charlie Day), driving his producing partner (Edie Falco) into fits of frustrated rage, who ends up thrown into deep confusion helplessly watches his spoiled 17-year old daughter (Chloë Grace Moretz) seemingly seduced by the legendary aging oddball filmmaker who Topher worships and was previously accused of, but never charged with, sexually molesting a minor (played by Woody Allen – wait… I mean, John Malkovich).
Set up in the milieu of familiar behind-the-scenes entertainment and Hollywood power dynamics that is the foundation for the very cause du jour, in which the public’s shocked ears have been subjected to all sorts of appalling stories of male corruption and inappropriate behaviour — from standard bearer Harvey Weinstein (“We all knew he was a pig!”) to Matt Lauer (“Not him too!”) to Charlie Rose (“He did what… ?”) – that we all kinda knew has been going on for years, but for which comeuppance has only now arrived and, of which, Louis CK found himself directly in the crosshairs of, having admitted to asking any number of women (many of them wide-eyed newbies looking to work with him) if he could (yecch) masturbate in front of them (to which he’s admitted to), it’s simply fascinating to watch this meta-bending, morally-fitful and eerily prescient (considering CK’s personal scandal broke after he made the film, it’s as if he just knew it was coming) story unfold.
I lean towards a buddy’s assessment that a profoundly driving motivation behind CK’s work is shame and a masochistic self-hating desire to humiliate himself (there’s a million examples, from disgustedly referring to himself as a ‘fat faggot’ – which he somehow makes endearing — over his shameful lack of control over eating shit food and controlling his weight in his brilliantly hilarious ‘cinnabon’ stage routine, to unsparingly displaying his obese naked form for all of us to see on his “Louie” show, to then his character – i.e., himself – enduring the embarrassment of being forced to dress up in lipstick and women’s clothes and openly mocked), which would go some way to understanding his preferred method of sexual harassment (or whatever you’d technically refer to it); that is, apparently having women watch him flagellate a body that he himself describes in terms of self-disgust.
CK’s worship of the Woodman is all over the film, from the black and white, 35mm photography, to the oft picturesque Manhattan setting (showing off a lot of the rich man’s playground as Woody would often do), the “Lolita”-style plotting of a young provocatively nubile female minor mixing manipulations with a much older man, to the penultimate scene taking place after some time has passed and the characters all having gathered at a well-dressed party (well, actually an awards ceremony in this one, where each of the characters has moved up to greater success, except for Topher) and a sort of moral summation moment occurs resonating deeply with the ending of what I would argue (fighting amongst two others of his works) as Allen’s masterpiece, Crimes and Misdemeanors, which perhaps not coincidentally tells the tale of a wealthy man who learns to live with the occasional moral heartburn that comes with getting away with terrible sins (i.e., murder) awarded the privileged and powerful. The connection that’s even more profoundly fascinating and unsettling is the mirroring scandals in both their lives and how they so openly, almost confessionally, reflected it in their work (in the case of Allen’s brilliant Husbands and Wives as with CK’s film, he also completed it before the scandal erupted).
CK is really a wonderful writer (and dramatist), whose deft merging of fascinating intellectual philosophical discourse (that appears to so directly relate to his own life and questionings – and lean a bit too close to validations of his own moral improprieties) through narrative action is right up there with Allen (though, the best of the Woodman, with the rich emotional tapestry of films like Hannah and her Sisters, still surpasses CK – at this point, anyway, and who knows if after his current exile, how much of a career there will be left for CK to prove himself!).
Another trait he shares with Allen is working with lots of name actors, and often bringing out the best in them. Falco was staggeringly good as the emotionally embittered sister in the little seen but brilliantly painful under-the-radar Brooklyn bar set dramedy single-season series Horace and Pete written, starring and directed by Louis CK (the best of all his output, in my mind) and, with Daddy, she parlays that performance into something no less angry, but shaded it with a practicality (and less damaged) sensibility that brings out more humor in the part… and it works wonderfully; it’s both funny and raw. Falco is a treasure and deserves every bit of credit she ever gets.
Malkovich, as the serene seeming, possibly demonic film writing guru, is magnificently creepy and charmingly appealing, all at once. As a performer, he’s aging like a fine wine. His mere presence, as the Allen stand-in (speaking of that, kinda amazing to see CK throwing the real Allen a bit under the bus with this characterization), yet more sensual and serene than what we think of us as the highly neurotic Allen, is a joy to behold as we wonder if he’s just a snake in the grass or someone who generally follows his high-falutin’ philosophical approaches to life (that just happen to also work as a young-chick-magnet). My only complaint on the performer front is that his usual comrade Pamela Adlon doesn’t have a bigger role, as it’s always a pleasure (and great fun) to witness her give her usual tough, no bullshit style performance, this time as Louis’ ex who still comes around and is just about the only one in his life who aggressively pushes him into being a better father and human being.
The most problematic aspect of Daddy (especially, it’s hard not to see, in the face of the allegations that CK has admitted to) is that while the film – and CK’s work in general — plays as a sort-of confessional and an attempt at self-therapy, in this case (and in this milieu of the entertainment world), it’s never really an honest one in which he holds himself (or any male figures in the film) truly accountable for the manipulations and abuses of power, sexually and otherwise, going on. Yes, he’s playing a writer, a powerful entertainment figure, but all we’ve seen is him with a spoiled daughter who he can’t bring himself to ever say ‘no’ to (including being unable to stop her from travelling the world with the possible pedophile filmmaker Malkovich), his firing of an original actress cast as the lead in his series for another after he begins an tryst with another actress (Rose Byrne) he eventually casts in the part (with the Byrne character clearly working to get the part by prodding Topher along with the relationship) — and adding in the fact that it’s CK’s daughter being the one upon her 18th birthday we see actually making physical moves on the Malkovich character and not vice-versa (which the older man even quietly rejects).
He’s like the troubled, disgraced person going into therapy who desperately wants to get off his chest what he’s done… but can’t quite get there yet and accept his own nefarious culpability. As far as he can see it, his biggest crime isn’t his own (and men’s) aggressive abuse of power, but that he’s not strong enough to stand up to the (mostly female) forces of desire and manipulation to which he can, from his position of patriarchal power, redeem everything (which perfectly culminates in the scene with his weeping daughter screaming at him that it’s his fault she won’t amount to anything for giving her everything she wants and never standing up to her). That’s his failure, as far as he can see it. Which is why, when he has that odd eerie moment in which he seems to be predicting his own future predicament and openly apologizes, in character, to ‘all women’, as far as what we can see in the film, we can only wonder what for? He hasn’t done anything. He hasn’t done anything close to using his position to coerce women into watching him masturbate (not that that isn’t there, it’s just comes through with his crude sidekick played by Day, acting as CK’s barely disguised ego, who can say and do all the over-the-line things CK doesn’t allow his more upstanding character, such as literally pretending to masturbate to the point of orgasming – in front of the Falco’s producer character — at the mention of any hot actress, which is both amusing to see while also being tremendously awkward – especially now knowing the CK allegations — it’s certainly a loaded moment, pun intended).
In fact, it can be argued that the real evil incarnate in the film, the one most helping enable the continued sexual corruption, harassment and assault the indignantly righteous public is currently up in arms over is not the shady Woody Allen-stand in director who may or may not be working to physically seduce the young girl (and can only say ‘it’s complicated’ when faced with the direct question on whether he ‘fucked’ the minor he was accused of molesting), but, in fact, Byrne’s actress who seduces Topher knowing it’s going to lead to a fellow actress being fired (all while pretending at innocence) and then, in a typically Louis CK well-performed and written scene (like so much Woody Allen, even with its compromised perspective, it still manages to go over a lot of ethical terrain in raw fascinating terms) entirely enables the situation of Topher’s 17-year old daughter going off and being seduced by the 68 year old, possibly pedophile filmmaker, with Topher, all the while, acting as a voice of caring parental reason (if a decidedly wimpy one – again, it’s CK saying his character – and perhaps his own flaw – is really being too sensitive and thoughtful to stand up for what’s right and has nothing to do with jerking off in front of unwilling women). Jeez, meanwhile, poor Rose Byrne. She probably thought she was getting this career turning opportunity to act off of Louis CK in one his joints, only to I’m sure now feel like she has to apologize for having taken part in the film at all, if not pull an outright mea culpa (saying if she could do it all over again, she wouldn’t have done it, like Ellen Page did with Woody… and Page didn’t even play an enabling character!).
With Daddy, I Love You, CK has created an at-times brilliant, always fascinating conundrum of a film, with so much material to chew on, and so much of it fully loaded (I keep finding myself going back to that). As flawed and self-serving as CK’s perspective might ultimately be, it’s thankfully an adult work trying to grapple with mature themes (while also being entertaining and funny as hell – watching CK as Topher grapple with so many uncomfortable moments never ceases to amuse; it’s comedy gold). With each film and series, he’s clearly grown in confidence and stature as a filmmaker and storyteller. It’s a shame that most audiences are going to lose out from seeing it. Guess it’ll just make more room for the next slick, corporate, military-fetishizing, adolescent-friendly superhero movie.