‘Daddio’ Review: Dakota Johnson and Sean Penn Meander Through a NYC Cab Ride

Christy Hall’s tone-deaf two-hander takes viewers from JFK airport to midtown Manhattan in a tour of blustery clichés

Dakota Johnson, Sean Penn in "Daddio"
Dakota Johnson, Sean Penn in "Daddio"

It takes a little more than 45 minutes before Dakota Johnson tells Sean Penn to “go f–k” himself in “Daddio,” a tone-deaf two-hander drama that takes place over the course of a long cab ride from JFK airport in New York City to midtown Manhattan. Johnson’s curious, but unconvincing passenger — unnamed in the movie, but referred to as “Girlie” in the press notes — doesn’t often seem to mind being leered at by Clark (Penn), her philosophical mook driver. Girlie also entertains Clark’s patronizing homespun wisdom and increasingly personal questions far more than you might expect, based mostly on his tic-y performance and embarrassing dialogue.

In real life, Johnson co-produced “Daddio” with her regular collaborator Ro Donnelly (“Cha Cha Real Smooth,” “The Disappearance of Shere Hite”) and also suggested Penn for the role of Clark. Writer/director Christy Hall additionally credits her two actors with making adjustments to her script, which has a habit of chugging ahead without first establishing any credible emotional reality to contextualize its wilder twists and turns.

A pseudo-adult fairy tale about a New York that only exists in the minds of incurious tourists, “Daddio” follows a younger woman and an older man who inexplicably dive into the guts of their personal lives. Hall says she took inspiration from “Taxicab Confessions,” and it shows in some of Clark’s more crass and brazen lines. He talks more than she does, and it soon becomes hard to take seriously a movie whose ostensibly frank, unsentimental characters mostly speak in blustery clichés or tin-eared generalizations.

It’s especially hard to understand the apparent ease of Girlie and Clark’s unbelievable conversation. Maybe it’s because they’re talented actors who make bad creative decisions, or maybe these characters simply don’t say anything that their creators don’t on some level wonder themselves. Either way, Clark sizes her up and asks her leading questions, like, “Did your daddy do something?” or “Did you like getting tied up?”

Girlie seems to confirm, or at least mulls over, Clark’s dreary and often retrograde observations, including when he reads into her relationship with “L,” the mysterious man she occasionally sexts with between questions. She seems flattered by Clark’s concern and always interested in wherever his erratic train of thought will stop next, even if it’s on the essential differences between men and women or twerpy compliments like, “You don’t use the ‘L Word’ unless you mean it.” She occasionally escapes into her phone to talk to L, but that’s also a largely one-sided conversation, filled with pushy sex talk — “need your pink,” “help me cum” — and guarded curiosity (from her, of course). None of it appears natural or real, even within the fetish-ready environment of a NYC yellow cab.

“Daddio” also often looks dull, with negligible variations of the same shots that juxtapose his face, frontlit with a bad Van Dyke in the camera’s extreme foreground, with hers, platinum blonde, staring off-camera, low lit and with a very soft/blurry focus at the back of the frame. His face runs a gamut of strained emotions, from giddy self-satisfaction to damp, steely-eyed concentration. She mostly holds our attention by letting her uncertain body language — flicking eyes, bemused shakes of the head — speak for her, especially whenever Girlie seems most concerned with keeping her mind running, holding space for thoughts rather than actively processing anything in particular.

Johnson’s performance remains the best reason to see “Daddio,” a dialogue-focused movie whose conversation’s were frequently steered, if not completely dominated, by Clark’s oily personality. You presumably don’t have to nod along with everything that Clark says in order to buy or even be intrigued by his conversation with Girlie, but it would probably help if Girlie were less of a cypher than a fully-realized character. Johnson’s performance and investment in her skimpy role says some things about her character, but not enough to compensate for Penn’s insistent over-acting. She commands attention when she sadly waves her head at L’s increasingly desperate sexts, or when she thoughtfully bites her acrylic nails, presumably to ward off unwelcome thoughts. In a climactic later scene, Girlie reveals something deeply personal about her character that retrospectively colors her entire conversation with Clark. That speech is moving, but the power of Johnson’s performance is regularly undercut by reaction shots of Penn, nodding and staring a little too hard.

Penn’s unpleasantly familiar character at least matches his flop-sweat intensity, especially when Clark fondly remembers chasing his first wife around the kitchen, and then, after an uncomfortably suggestive pause, adds: “That was a good day.” It’s still pretty hard to take the movie’s generation-gap-bridging conversation seriously when so much depends on Penn talking, in multiple scenes, about scuba-diving as an aspirational way to live one’s life, or when he describes his first wife — who is this woman? — as “dumb as s–t,” even if “she was a sweetheart.” Penn and Johnson often seem enamored with each other’s company, though it’s still hard to catch their chummy vibe given the grating and graceless pitch of their conversation. As a feature-length conversation, “Daddio” lurches from one beat to the next; as a drama, it barely moves at all.

“Daddio” premieres Friday after having debuting at Telluride last September.

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