No point in burying the lede: Louis C.K.’s new movie I Love You, Daddy is about his relationship with Woody Allen. It’s not exactly subtle — the character of Leslie Goodwin (John Malkovich) is a neurotic, hypochondriac filmmaker, well past retirement age, who is introduced via this exchange of dialogue:
“I’ve wanted to meet him my whole life.”
“Isn’t he a child molester?”
That first line is spoken by Glenn Topher (C.K.), a successful television comedy writer; later, when he’s about to go on an arranged lunch with his artistic hero, a collaborator insists, “You gotta ask him if he touched that kid,” to which he responds, “I could maybe work with the best writer/director ever, and you want me to ask about a fucked-up rumor? He was never even charged with that!” Just a reminder: Louis C.K. co-starred in Blue Jasmine, the Woody Allen film most recently in theaters when the allegations that Allen had sexually abused his (then seven-year-old) daughter Dylan in 1992 resurfaced. The inspiration for the character couldn’t be clearer if he’d just gone ahead and slapped Woody’s name on him.
And his character, like so many Allen admirers, begins the film by patiently explaining the separation of art from artist, and dismissing the “rumors” of his pedophilia. But the central conflict of I Love You Daddy makes the clichéd hypothetical concrete: if he’s so harmless, would you trust him with your daughter? In Glenn’s case, that’s China (Chloë Grace Moretz), who is 17 years old — the same age as Tracy, the Mariel Hemingway character romanced by Allen’s much-older television writer in Allen’s 1979 film Manhattan. I Love You Daddy is brazenly shot in the exact same style as Manhattan, a sophisticated and luminous black-and-white New York City romantic comedy, scored with lush orchestral music.
However, I Love You Daddy isn’t just two hours of Louie grappling with Woody; it’s a film that merges the autobiography of Louie with the absurdism of his first feature Tomorrow Night, mostly in his semi-uncomfortable interactions with China early on, a dynamic borne out of his wealth and her ability to play him like a violin. She pretty much gets whatever she asks for — until she asks to start dating and traveling with Leslie.
“He’s an old fuck with a shady past, and she’s a kid,” Glenn insists, and Leslie doesn’t say or do much to dispute those points, which, for Glenn, is the most unnerving part. Or maybe it’s the way those who know the filmmaker make excuses — like Grace, the movie star Glenn’s started dating, who cheerfully shrugs, “He’s an old perv.” (She’s played by Rose Byrne, in a strand that never quite gels, and her accent comes and goes rather distractingly.) Later, when he and Grace (and China and Leslie) have become more serious, Grace challenges him, insisting that age is arbitrary compared to experience, and bounces his own weaknesses back at him, specifically rumors of his own infidelities. He replies with a half-assed “You can think what you want, people say what they want, they think they know,” while insisting he’s learned that “you cannot judge anyone else’s private life” — and then realizes the trap he’s fallen into. “This is DIFFERENT,” he immediately protests, a funny line in a scene where you’re all but gasping for one. That scene is so loaded it’s downright unsettling, particularly considering C.K’s own accusations of sexual misconduct. He doesn’t duck out of this conversation — he sits in it, and keeps us there too.
That scene, and - contrary to what you might’ve read out of TIFF thus far - the movie that surrounds it, is neither attack nor apologia, though its very act of existing, of saying the things it says out loud and looking and sounding the way it does, makes it much more the former. But as fans discover every time they’re challenged to cloud their perceptions with information about terrible behavior, these things are complicated. In I Love You Daddy, C.K. has made a film that grapples with those complications, and offers no easy answers, much as he did when addressing, without skeleton keys and platitudes, the stickiness of politics, gender, and race on Louie and Horace and Pete. He’s dipped into intensely personal territory before (and for that matter, so has Allen, in films like Husbands and Wives and Deconstructing Harry). Louie was often a show where its creator Worked Shit Out, on the page and on the screen, to engaging, thought-provoking, and humorous effect.
Sadly, he never quite achieves that delicate balancing act with I Love You Daddy, and the explanation, simply, is that he’s playing with dynamite here. This is a fascinating piece of work, and compelling autobiography/personal essay, but it never quite comes together as drama; the parallels and subtext end up filling all its silences, in a manner that’s just untenable in a feature comedy. There are moments that play, in and of themselves, but the uneasiness of the material ends up overwhelming him, resulting in less a motion picture than a 123-minute think-piece generation machine.
Jason Bailey is film editor at Flavorwire. His most recent book is Richard Pryor: American Id. Follow him on Twitter.