This Friday was to have brought the release of Louis C.K.’s soul-searching new film I Love You, Daddy. Instead, after C.K. admitted to sexual misconduct, its distribution company, The Orchard, said it was dropping the film, for which it paid $5 million in September at the Toronto Film Festival.
That’s unfortunate, because I Love You Daddy deserves to be seen. As its subject is sexual misbehavior, it’s particularly relevant to the cultural moment and would have attracted a sizeable and engaged audience. Instead, because few have seen it, it’s being misrepresented as excuse-making, notably in the same New York Times story that reported C.K. had committed lewd acts in front of five women. The Times chided Daddy because its “characters appear to dismiss rumors of sexual predation” and added that the film’s “content has raised eyebrows. Given the rumors surrounding Louis C.K., the movie ‘plays like an ambiguous moral inventory of and excuse for everything that allows sexual predators to thrive: open secrets, toxic masculinity, and powerful people getting the benefit of the doubt,’ Joe Berkowitz wrote in Fast Company.”
While I can’t comment on the general validity of film reviews published in Fast Company as I was not previously aware that Fast Company published film reviews, this interpretation is rubbish. I Love You, Daddy is a nauseated moan of remorse for the way Hollywood elites treat women. In no way is it an “excuse.” It’s much more of an indictment and, in an oblique sense, a mea culpa.
Shot in a lush black and white suggesting Golden Age Hollywood, the film is about a disillusioned but hugely successful creator of TV shows, played by C.K., whose cinematic idol, 68-year-old Leslie Dixon (John Malkovich), is modeled on Woody Allen: He’s an eminent but loathsome director previously accused of child molestation who toys with women half a century younger. Though C.K. has described Allen as one of his avatars and once acted for Allen (in Blue Jasmine), he is in essence using the form of an Allen movie (Manhattan and Stardust Memories) to bash Allen on moral grounds. This is something of a breakthrough: As we have been reminded lately, famous Hollywood people are extremely averse to calling attention to one another’s moral failings as long as they fear consequences. C.K. should get credit for being one of the first major show-business figures to point the finger inside the charmed circle.
C.K.’s character, Glen Topher, is living in a New York City apartment the size of an airport terminal. Lounging in the background is his 17-year-old daughter, China (Chloë Grace Moretz), who is presented in such overtly sexual terms — she flounces around in a tiny bikini — that C.K. is sending up via exaggeration the way young women are today hypersexualized, especially in Hollywood. China might as well be wearing a label reading, “USDA Prime,” or maybe “Lolita 2017.”
The ironic use of a romantic, 1940s-style orchestral score highlights by its incongruity the sordid nature of Daddy’s milieu, and in keeping with its anti-rom-com feel, when Glen and China meet the illustrious Goodwin (Malkovich’s look suggests Ho Chi Minh visiting the Playboy Mansion), the filmmaker immediately starts hitting on the girl, who is one-fourth his age. Glen thinks (like everyone in Hollywood, going back forever) that great artists’ personal foibles are their own business and shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with our judgment about their art. But he has given a hostage to fortune. He soon learns how easy it is to suffer from anything-goes sexual mores, even in cases where no crime has been committed.
In a scene that’s so reptilian it recalls Kaa the snake hypnotizing Mowgli in The Jungle Book, Leslie puts a kind of spell on the helpless girl with a pseudo-intellectual lecture about the various subcategories of feminism. It’s exactly the way such a man would attract the interest of a young beauty: by asserting his authority and preying on her insecurity about her own lack of depth. Malkovich and Moretz play the scene impeccably; you practically want to shout at her to get away from the old lecher. Pretty soon Glen actually is shouting: “This is wrong,” he insists, and he angrily confronts Goodwin, who simply dismisses the complaint.
Yet a later scene, devastatingly, reveals that Glen himself is willing to use his own fame in a less than savory manner. C.K. isn’t positioning himself as a moral authority here; he is aware of his own feet of clay. This element, too, seems intended to rebuke Allen, in whose 50-year oeuvre there is scarcely any hint of shame. In Allen’s Manhattan, his character is a 42-year-old dating a fragile 17-year-old, and not only does everyone in the movie shrug at the situation (modeled on a real-life affair Allen had), but Allen’s character gets to deliver the movie’s homily, a self-righteous scolding given to a friend for stealing his (other) girlfriend.
To its credit, the Times offered its readers this week a much more analytically sound take on Daddy than the misguided one it quoted last week. Film critic Manohla Dargis calls the film a “catalog of male pathology” that “also seemed confessional,” adding that it “circled — and circled — its own creator’s complicity in female exploitation. . . . For once a filmmaker seemed to be admitting to the misogyny that we know is always there.”
I Love You, Daddy doesn’t reflect on C.K.’s specific sexual misdeeds, but it is a harsh critique of a diseased culture, one that resists any notion that a cure is close at hand. C.K. is uneasy with how Hollywood became so bereft of moral thought that a core value is “Don’t be judgmental.” He shows how insidiously self-serving that dictum can be; in Hollywood you turn a blind eye to others’ misdeeds so they’ll ignore your own. Many a sleepy movie congratulates itself as “hard-hitting” because it takes on some pre-approved target — oil companies, bankers, the Catholic Church. But C.K.’s film, by shining a light on the awful moral calculus within the entertainment industry, genuinely is tough on the institution, and to a lesser degree ashamed of his own role in it.
I’m not aware of anything like this kind of burn-the-evidence tactic being previously deployed in modern times.
Yet C.K. is being prevented from making this important statement. At the same time, HBO announced it was removing his standup-comedy specials and his series Lucky Louie from its on-demand service. I’m not aware of anything like this kind of burn-the-evidence tactic being previously deployed in modern times, nor is it obvious why C.K. should be treated as a uniquely malign transgressor.
HBO is at this moment streaming Hacksaw Ridge, a film by Mel Gibson, who in 2011 pleaded no contest to a charge of battery against an ex-girlfriend who had alleged that he had assaulted her so viciously that she was left with a black eye and two broken teeth. HBO has no policy, as far as I know, against distributing movies starring Christian Slater, who once served 59 days in jail after pleading no contest to assaulting a girlfriend. The films of Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Roman Polanski remain ubiquitous. Hollywood history is rife with personalities who have done much worse things than C.K. and whose films have not been subsequently suppressed.
While it’s understandable that reputable businesses might want not to hire C.K going forward, The Orchard was already in partnership with the comic, ever since it bought his film in September, by which time allegations against him were common knowledge in Hollywood and had even been published online. In cutting off C.K.’s film, The Orchard is also punishing hundreds of others who worked on it. Why should, for instance, the excellent performances of Moretz and Rose Byrne, who plays an actress on Glen’s sitcom, be denied an audience? Why shouldn’t viewers be allowed to make their own decisions about whether C.K.’s actions place his film beneath contempt?
Fifty-one years ago, enraged Christians and the Ku Klux Klan gathered to publicly burn piles of Beatles records after John Lennon said the group was more popular than Jesus Christ. Digitally burning Louis C.K.’s work to signal one’s adherence to the current moral dogma is just as silly as that was.
— Kyle Smith is National Review’s critic-at-large.