While putting his life back together following a suicide attempt, an unstable young man named Franklin (James Morosini) meets a girl online who starts to make him feel better. Her name is Becca, she’s way prettier than he thinks he deserves, and she seems really interested in him. How or why this person chose Franklin, out of all the incels on Facebook, doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. Life seems to be looking up, and yet Franklin’s would do well to be a smidge skeptical. Because he is being catfished. By his father.
Writer-director-star Morosini’s funny, cringey, all-too-credible dramedy “I Love You Dad” really happened. “My dad asked me to tell you it didn’t,” claims an on-screen chyron at the outset, but it’s too good a story to pass up. And no matter how upset Morosini must have been to discover the deception at the time, his dad gave the budding indie filmmaker (“Threesomething”) the gift of a lifetime: great material. So, in the interest of making good on that opportunity, Morosini assembled a cast of comic performers to mine the amusing side of a creepy situation, including Patton Oswalt as Chuck, a semi-fictional version of his father the fabulist, plus Rachel Dratch as Dad’s randy girlfriend.
“I Love You Dad” opens with Franklin blocking his dad — a pathological liar whose chronic schemes and excuses ultimately became too much for him to bear — on Facebook. Apart from a collection of voicemail messages recited by Oswalt over the opening credits, it’s not clear what Chuck’s crime was, though everything that follows suggests that no matter how much this guy cared about his son, his relationship to honesty and ethics was loose to nonexistent. Still, the setup feels rushed, and it’s a missed opportunity to give the dad some dimension, especially since the film is oddly, uncomfortably told from his perspective.
Chuck can’t stand to be cut off like this (remember, his son tried to take his life, suggesting there’s an element of concern amid Chuck’s narcissism). So he takes the suggestion of a co-worker (Lil Rel Howery) and creates a fake account in order to re-friend Franklin. Not just any account, but that of an attractive local waitress, Becca (Claudia Silewski), who offers a kind word while he’s crying into his coffee one morning. Chuck goes home, looks her up online and makes a profile using all her selfies, bikini shots and all. Of course Franklin takes the bait. (The term “catfishing” comes from a 2010 indie documentary, but what Morosini’s dad did takes it to a whole different level and practically demands its own word.)
Morosini plays most of what follows for comedy, which is certainly a better solution than using the movie as a resentful act of revenge. Or therapy, although it’s clear the project gave the filmmaker a chance to put himself in his father’s shoes, to try to understand what happened (much as Shia LaBeouf did in “Honey Boy” by writing and playing a character based on his father). But audiences will likely find it a lot more difficult to forgive Chuck than the director does, even if this guy’s screwed-up ploy was an act of love, however twisted.
Chuck didn’t stop at wanting to know if Franklin was OK. He started chatting with his son, in character, as the kid’s fantasy girl. In these scenes, Becca pops up beside Franklin, as if the two are talking in person — which is a lot more fun than reading their text conversation on a screen, while nicely demonstrating how our imaginations work when we can’t see the other party. But things get awkward fast when small talk turns to sexting, and we feel the true scope of the betrayal when Morosini stages an incestuous make-out session between Oswalt and himself.
Oswalt excels at playing losers like Chuck, who recalls complicated outcasts he’s played in “Big Fan” and “Young Adult.” Oswalt may be a comedian, but like Robin Williams in “One Hour Photo,” he can retreat to that dark place at the opposite end of his personality from the extrovert we associate with his standup. Chuck should be darker, but also more charming, like the criminal con-man dad Sean Penn recently played in “Flag Day.” Oswalt could have taken the character to such places, though Morosini opts to make him pathetic instead. But our feelings about “I Love You Dad” should not be decided by whether we feel sorry for Chuck.
As the star of his own story, Morosini shares much of the same emo energy Jake Gyllenhaal brought to “Donnie Darko.” He goes through the movie half-lidded and numb, as if Franklin were floating on a cloud of antidepressants. Morosini’s revealing an embarrassing thing that happened to him, chiding himself for not seeing the signs (like the way Becca had no other Facebook friends), but lacks a certain crucial vulnerability. He holds back the personal stuff you can tell a stranger but not your dad — the kind of material good comedians build their shows around — making the result feel like a sitcom more than a brutally honest movie.