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‘I Love You, Daddy’ Film Review: Louis CK’s Shelved Comedy Is Queasy and Wrongheaded

Look no further for proof of what this comic-writer-director doesn’t understand about sexual politics

Louis CK’s “I Love You, Daddy” is queasy fare, not just because its rambling, self-indulgent story has strange and unfortunate associations with real-life allegations, but also for its tone-deaf narrative and offensive sexual politics. (Originally set for release this month, the film was dropped by distributor The Orchard in light of the allegations against the filmmaker, which he has acknowledged as true.)

Pamela Adlon and Edie Falco are the only saving graces in an otherwise graceless movie by CK, who stars and directs, 16 years after his last helming effort, “Pootie Tang.” At one point Adlon’s character, Maggie, a friend and ex of CK’s Glen, calls him out for over-estimating the character of a lecherous director he admires. “The whole thing makes me hate the both of you,” Maggie says. That sums up the experience of watching this movie. The main male characters in the movie are easily hateable.

It’s hard to overlook a host of wince-worthy moments, given the recent sexual harassment accusations made against Louis CK. There’s a faux masturbation scene (performed by Charlie Day), as well as plenty of lines about not believing rumors. But perhaps the most appropriate line comes when his Glen character bursts out in exasperation: “I’m sorry, women. On behalf of all men, please, let you all know that I’m very sorry.”

Glen is responding to Maggie’s comment above, but it could easily be the comedian himself apologizing for his own alleged misconduct. He also has reason to apologize for this limp noodle of a movie. While there are a couple clever lines of dialogue, mostly spoken by supporting female characters, all the loutish male characters are given to unabated mansplaining.

If CK was trying to communicate something about men and women, it’s not clear what. With its pontificating and neurotic male characters, there is more than a little resemblance to Woody Allen films; CK clearly is paying homage to “Manhattan” with this black-and-white film set in New York.

The film’s visuals are its only asset. Shot on 35mm, the production design is quite striking, evoking classic glossy Hollywood films. But the rudderless story drags. It’s hard to say which is worse: the cringe-inducing moments or its meandering, plotless story.

CK’s Glen is a successful TV writer and showrunner whose work no longer inspires him. Falco plays his long-suffering producing partner who bears the brunt of his career malaise and childish self-absorption. His 17-year-old daughter China (Chloë Grace Moretz) has decided she wants to live with him, rather than with her mom (Helen Hunt). Her mother points out the fact that he lives in a glamorous apartment, has access to private planes and clearly spoils her rotten has a lot to do with China’s decision. We meet her lounging in a bikini, just back from spring break in Florida.

Glen is a father for whom the word “no” seems anathema. His daughter wants to skip school to go back to Florida after break. He acquiesces. She wants to travel there in the private jet. He arranges it. Later, she flies off to Paris, not only missing more school, but also traveling with the skeezy 70-year-old auteur Leslie Goodwin (John Malkovich). Glen does nothing to stop it. Adlon’s character rightly tells Glen he’s a terrible dad.

In addition to Glen’s lack of parenting skills, he is clueless about women. When his daughter tentatively calls herself a feminist, he scoffs at her and shuts her down, mocking her for being on the dole at 17. He’s clearly made that happen, and then sneers at her for being a spoiled kid.

Moretz, a talented young actress, is not asked to do more than play a wide-eyed Lolita type to Malkovich’s familiarly snaky Goodwin. It’s not only creepy that a 17-year-old goes out with this smug old dude, but to make things even more nauseating, he also was accused of pedophilia, though never convicted.

Glen is repeatedly quick to admonish anyone for judging. His words seem disturbingly convenient coming out of CK’s mouth — “You shouldn’t say stuff like that about someone you just hear stories about; his private life is nobody’s business” — given the sexual harassment accusations that only recently came to light after dogging him for years.

Day’s character, Ralph, seems to exist to play CK’s alter ego, the guy who says the gross stuff people think, but don’t utter. He’s the one who asks the pompous Goodwin: “So did you f–k that kid?” And Goodwin finds his honesty refreshingly delightful. Excuse us while we retch.

Goodwin’s main defender is Grace Cullen, a movie star played by Rose Byrne, who once had a relationship with the aging director and speaks nostalgically about having sex with a much older man when she was 15. When Glen points out that that constitutes rape, she grows irate and insists that 18 is an arbitrary age of consent. While the notion of adulthood, consent and the complexity of relationships could be explored intriguingly, or humorously, it’s merely muddled in this context. Byrne, whose comic talents are substantial, is never given a chance to exercise them here.

In one clunky scene, Glen stammers as he meets his filmmaking idol Goodwin at a party, prattling: “You know when you get into that mode where you just start making things because you can?” The director doesn’t, but we get it. This seems to be Louis CK with no fresh ideas making something just because he can. (Perhaps someday, when all the dust has settled, the movie might lend itself to a drinking game where frat boys swig beer every time Moretz sweetly coos: “I love you, Daddy.”)

While no one expects a movie without foul language from CK, the use of the n-word in relation to a Yiddish pejorative seems wholly unnecessary. Some might find the repeated use of “retarded” offensive, as well.

The film concludes on a noxiously reductive note, but it’s one that appears to make sense to CK: “Everybody’s a pervert,” opines China’s teenage friend Zasha (Ebonee Noel, “Wrecked”). Once she makes this pronouncement and confesses she had a crush on Glen, he lunges for her. That’s a simultaneously disturbing and tidy resolution. It’s unseemly for Leslie to hook up with his daughter, but fine for the middle-aged Glen to make the moves on his daughter’s pal. Maybe he’s simply satirizing the heck out of “Manhattan,” but the clunky artlessness of it falls flat. The tone of the film feels way out of step with the world we’re living in.

Perhaps the biggest mistake of all in this dissonant movie, given that it comes from the mind of a man whose comedy has often been inspired, is this: It simply isn’t funny. “I Love You, Daddy” is so wrong in so many ways.