There's a moment before the thirty-minute mark of I Love You, Daddy where Glen Topher (Louis C.K.) explains to his daughter (or, perhaps more accurately, mansplains to his daughter) the reasons why she cannot be a feminist. China (Chloë Grace Moretz) listens intently to her father, knowing the whole way that there's some ulterior motive bubbling beneath the surface of her dad's rather silly lecture, as he rattles on about her status as a privileged white girl - a child who lives in luxury due to his successful career. Then the talk's true purpose finally reveals itself: this isn't about feminism at all. He's mad because she's struck up a relationship with one of his idols: sixty-something cinematic legend - not to mention Woody Allen clone - Leslie Goodwin (John Malkovich), whose personal life has been tainted by accusations of sexual misconduct in the past.
This is the moment when I almost turned Louis C.K.'s I Love You, Daddy off. It was too much, not from a narrative or even filmmaking standpoint, but simply a spiritual one. Here was this very personal work that may never see the light of day due to C.K.'s own carnal improprieties. You already know that part of the story: while I Love You, Daddy was produced in secret and then screened at the Toronto International Film Fest (where it was purchased by The Orchard for $5 million), rumors of C.K.'s revolting behavior toward women had been brewing and threatening to boil over. In the weeks leading up to his movie's November release, the New York Times published a story where five women accused C.K. of sexual misconduct. The next day, Louis admitted that the accusations were true, thus leading to a career dismantling that was as vicious as it was swift.
The New York Times story broke on November 9th. By November 10th, the release of I Love You, Daddy was pulled by The Orchard. He was also dropped from the FX Network, his management team, and publicist. Netflix yanked his stand-up specials, and HBO booted him from appearing on a charity event. In less than forty-eight hours, Louis C.K. became persona non grata in an arena where he'd previously been worshipped like a God; his bullish bits revolving around "naked truths" and exposing the rather grotesque nature of men now rendered nothing more than a performative smoke-screen. Here lurks the wolf in sheep's clothing, preying on victims he was supposed to not just be protecting, but championing. Sun's up, motherfucker, may your act never see the light of day again.
Unfortunately for The Orchard, Awards screeners for I Love You, Daddy were sent out prior to this calamity occurring, and now the young distributor's somewhat pricey investment was sitting on critics' doorsteps, waiting to be consumed. Morbid curiosity is one of the easiest impulses to indulge, and pieces regarding the film - both long and Letterboxd length - began popping up all over the Internet. The inside of the discs' packaging is lined with rave reviews out of TIFF. Yet others (such as the New Yorker's Richard Brody) have since scathingly indicted the picture as being a disgusting work of vanity, borderline shaming the small label for having picked it up in the first place. This type of chasm between initial raves and post-scandal pans mirrored Nate Parker's Birth of a Nation ('16). That Sundance darling suffered a similar dismissal after Parker's own past alleged sexual offenses were heavily detailed in August of '16. While still released by Fox Searchlight, that massive purchase ($17.5 million) thudded at the B.O. amidst the controversy, now a distant memory while Parker's career is ashes.
Did the movie change between its celebrated festival bow and mainstream release? Certainly not. But it's also easy to see how the critical sentiment regarding I Love You, Daddy or Birth of a Nation could change due to the anger their creators stirred up. This isn't a criticism of either movies' critics, mind you. Everyone has their limits when it comes time to separate a probably shitty human being from their still intellectually intriguing art (and these are fresh wounds we're currently dealing with). For example, this writer wrestled with watching Woody Allen's movies for years thanks to his alleged sordid sexual history, and then totally gave up on the legendary auteur after the New York Times published Dylan Farrow's open letter about the abuse she endured as a child at Allen's hands. How can one continue to watch pictures told through such a biographical lens, when they often include older men lusting after younger women (Manhattan ['79]), or shifting blame for familial trauma from guilty men to their innocent (but culpably complicit) wives (Blue Jasmine ['13])? Again, it was just too much.
It's tragically humorous that C.K.'s always fancied himself a student of Allen, even more so now that I Love You, Daddy will more than likely be the last time he ever steps behind a camera. His unreleased picture is a hyper-cinematic extension of the oft-avant garde comedic vignettes he featured in his hit FX series, Louie. Only now he's shooting in pure Manhattan black and white, on vibrant, lush 35mm stock, and has hired a full Abbey Road orchestra to score this hybrid strain of dramatic farce. It's as if C.K.'s flexing his muscles in order to confront his idol from the aesthetic level up, all while using a similarly tainted celluloid brush to paint his self-portrait. As if unsatisfied with that level of bombastic ostentatiousness, C.K. then introduces Goodwin: a nebbish, brilliant New York filmmaker with a past accusation of molestation C.K.'s fictional stand-in idolizes. This isn't confrontational filmmaking, it's downright combative, during a time when its mastermind should be apologizing.
I Love You, Daddy plays like a series of fever dreams, with a man's almost legal daughter standing at their intersection, often wearing nothing but a striped bikini. Moretz's China represents a number of anxieties bubbling around in her father's famous head. Her probable loss of purity - at the hands of a bunch of hunky Spring Break bros - highlights his (not to mention society's) unhealthy fixation on when girls lose their virginity. China's impending eighteenth birthday also signifies that Glen's getting older, and probably losing a bit of his talent, as he's no longer churning out the type of television he's overly proud to put his name on. But most fascinatingly enough, her perceived relationship with Leslie becomes a metatextual representation of C.K.'s fears regarding how he's viewed, particularly in relation to one artist he reveres. Do people really look at me like Woody Allen because of these "rumors"?
The fetishizing of Moretz's character is both wholly intentional and incredibly uncomfortable, as she enters the movie, purring "daddy" whenever she and C.K.'s characters share a scene, plopping in Glen's lap immediately after his actor buddy (Charlie Day) describes the numerous ways that she probably got sexually destroyed during Spring Break. There's a rather obvious critique of male gaze going on, as C.K. places China in front of the writer's friends and associates (some of which are women), who all not-so-quietly drool over her teenage figure. Meanwhile, Glen's distrust of Leslie's relationship with his daughter is picked apart by his latest fling - the pregnant soon-to-be star of his new series (Rose Byrne), who chides him at one point by telling her would-be boss to let his little girl "live her life."
In his usual performative fashion, C.K.'s created China as a means to comment on male/female double standards. Glen often looks like a buffoon by being overprotective of his daughter, while at the same time using the casting of his show to bed an actress. It's a classic Louis C.K. bullshit bit. Here's a man acting under the guise of moral superiority who has no real ethical footing to stand on, yet can't believe it when he's called out for not only lording over China, but also accusing his latest lover of doing the same with him (a charge the actress readily admits to). C.K. also puts the picture's most powerful men in positions where they can take advantage of women who look up to them, yet only one capitalizes on this opportunity (and it isn't who we expect).
This is also where I Love You, Daddy plays out like an elaborate filmic poker bluff, as C.K.'s also dissecting double standards when it comes to a celebrity's personal life. ***Minor Spoilers Follow:*** When China first meets Leslie, she immediately brings up his sexual past, and receives an earful from her father that she shouldn't talk about rumors regarding people's private lives. Later, when China and Leslie are on a trip together, he rebuffs her sexual advances, uninterested in "a child". You can practically feel C.K. using the scene as a defense against his own critics. See? Not every shitty thing you hear about a famous person is true, is it? Yet this is like bluffing against another player who's holding a full house, and unfortunately for C.K., he got called with all his chips stacked in the middle. Now he's got nothing but an inadvertent admission of guilt, packaged inside a movie that grossly sexualizes an underage character, that won't be released to the public.
At one point, Goodwin asks China what she thinks of him, and she says "I don't know." He nods and smiles in return: "that's the only honest response." Perhaps this sentiment should be applied to C.K.'s film as a whole, as its a personal work that should probably never have been released into the wild, let alone picked up by a distributor. It's not that the movie's bad, it's that it's almost too honest, while simultaneously being completely full of shit. Confronting his critics while knowing he was lying is an incredibly ballsy move, but the fact remains: Louis C.K. lost in the end. Now, the movie is hanging in purgatory, where it should probably remain. When it is eventually self-released, or leaked, or even possibly put out in art theaters for the remaining curious few, there's definitely value to seeing it, especially in terms of being a cinematic artifact. In a decade or two, we'll be able to use I Love You, Daddy as a psychological time capsule, letting viewers peer into the soul of a once great artist whose last feature was haunted by guilt; a perpetrator on the wrong side of a massive sea change in Hollywood ethical standards.