It’s not unusual to encounter a movie shot in black-and-white, or to see that movie set in New York City. But when it features a pointedly old-fashioned romantic musical score, and when all that confectionary sight and sound — lush 35mm! full orchestral swoon! — is presented in counterpoint to a tale of talky neurotics trying to analyze their way out the other side of their problems, we’re most pointedly in the terrain of Woody Allen’s “Manhattan.”
Welcome to “I Love You, Daddy,” an independent comedy directed and co-written by its star, Louis C.K. Technically, it’s his third feature — after “Tomorrow Night,” a doleful little drama he made in 1998, and “Pootie Tang” (2001), his cult hip-hop satire. But “I Love You, Daddy,” in which C.K. plays a Manhattan-based television writer who finds himself in a career crisis just as he’s trying to come to terms with the spoiled, ingenuous 17-year-old daughter (Chloe Grace Moretz) who’s slipping out of his grasp, is the first film he has made since “Louis” became a TV phenomenon, and it’s very much a movie by the auteur of that show.
Scenes sprawl, digress, and reveal character with tart-tongued observational flair. At the same time, C.K., who edited the film himself (as he does his TV series), piles up scenes as if he were stacking episodes on top of each other. A number of those scenes are terrific: laugh-out-loud funny, and with much to say about the state of the new beleaguered middle-aged male. But the film meanders, and its second half is shapeless. C.K. creates situations that are just lifelike enough to remind you that life, in fact, doesn’t come in adjoining episodes. “I Love You, Daddy” deserves a distributor, and its sharp dialogue and terrific cast should be a magnet for C.K.’s fans. But he still has a ways to go as a filmmaker if he wants to broaden that audience and make an indie knockout. (Prediction: He will.)
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At the start, C.K.’s Glen Topher seems to be in the driver’s seat. He’s a wealthy and highly respected TV writer, with a splendid apartment and his own production company, and though he already has a series on the air, he gets a deal to make 12 episodes of another one: a drama about nurses. He’s a hot property, but the show is scheduled to premiere in September, and it’s already April, which causes his production partner, played by Edie Falco, to go into hilariously addled fits.
Still, it’s not a bad problem to have, especially since Grace Cullen (Rose Byrne), a beautiful and celebrated Hollywood star (who happens to be an expectant single mother), is eager to nab the lead. She drops by Glen’s airy penthouse office in midtown, and from the moment they meet, the two look more than ready to work together. They look ready to leap into something romantic.
The issue that’s causing problems is Glen’s daughter, China, who is moving in with him for the rest of her senior year after having lived with her mother (Helen Hunt), who divorced Glen long ago. China has just returned from spring break in Florida, and when she walks into the living room, in her bikini and frosted hair, there’s one word for what she looks like: trouble. Moretz gives a highly likable, note-perfect performance as a contemporary teenage rich girl: sharp but flaky, hungry for adventure but too easily bored, and always dependent (at least, for permission) on Daddy. She says “I love you, Daddy!” every third sentence, and delivers the sentiment with such beguiling sincerity that you just know it’s a con job.
In case Glen doesn’t want to imagine what went on during spring break, he’s got a TV-actor pal, played by Charlie Day as a hilariously blunt bro with an obscene imagination and no filter, to remind him. He tells Glen about the naked party game called Mother May I, which fills him with horror. Yet when China says that she wants to go back to Florida, Glen can’t say no. That’s his whole problem: He can’t say no to anyone. He’s so lost in trying to be a nice guy that he’s totally adrift.
The catalyst for the film’s unexpectedly outrageous scenario is a party in the Hamptons, where Grace introduces Glen and his daughter to Leslie, a highly celebrated film director played by John Malkovich in slip-cover garments and a white goatee that comes to a little point. Leslie’s legend proceeds him: He likes very young women, and there’s a persistent rumor that he once molested a child. The character, it’s clear, is meant to be a fictionalized gloss on Woody Allen, though Malkovich gives him a very different personality — one that’s far removed, even, from his standard supercilious Malkovichian turn. He makes the director a kind of regal Zen libertine, open to every moment, and his seduction of China is as elaborate as it is roundabout. He doesn’t push, or even ask; he just lets the prey come to him.
When Glen learns that China is planning to accompany this suave snake to France, it strikes him as 100 times more sordid than spring break, and the movie keys off “Manhattan” in a deeply perverse way. Tracy, the Mariel Hemingway character in that film, was 17 years old, just like China. Allen’s character was 42; Malkovich’s character is 68. To Glen, the lines are cleanly drawn: China is still a minor, she’s his daughter, and Leslie is a perv who is old enough, in context, to seem like a mummy. The film gets into some very dicey terrain, and deserves credit for daring, though it wears its transgressive glee a little too proudly on its lapel.
It’s by letting this predicament torture him to distraction, to the point that he can’t write his scripts, that Glen begins to lose sight of his priorities. He wants, so badly, to do the right thing. But what that might be doesn’t occur to him. All of these character are lively, funny company, but most of their interactions — and Malkovich’s liltingly arch performance — still feel more satirical than dramatic. That’s fine, but “I Love You, Daddy” should have been a nimbly structured 90-minute comedy. (Allen’s “Manhattan,” with all its classic characters and complications, runs just 96 minutes.)
Instead, the movie rambles on for 123 minutes, and it becomes unwieldy; it loses its thematic center. “I Love You, Daddy” seems to be about how Glen’s dilly-dallying, and his ambivalence about what feminism really is, creates problems for the women in his life. When it comes to doing right by them, he’s actually a self-serving hypocrite. But there’s something too knee-jerk masochistic about C.K.’s willingness to play the putz. We’re not sure, frankly, what Glen has done that’s so wrong, and if the movie ultimately hinges on the bittersweet rite of passage of a man watching his daughter grow up and leave the nest, then it needed to make China more of an independent character. As good as Moretz is, she is seen, in almost every scene, from a man’s point of view. There’s a better, tighter, more emotionally focused movie hidden somewhere in the sprawl of “I Love You, Daddy.” It’s a movie that’s just as rude, funny, and observant as this one but that doesn’t tie itself in knots trying to “say” something.