About two-thirds of the way through his new directorial effort “I Love You, Daddy,” comedian Louis C.K. presents a conversation you don’t hear much, well, anywhere: His character and a love interest played by Rose Byrne sit on a bed and discuss social attitudes about sex between older men and teenage girls.
C.K.’s character, a successful if bumbling TV showrunner named Glen Topher, has just seen his 17-year-old daughter (Chloe Grace Moretz) go off to Paris with a 68-year-old director (John Malkovich, in maximum slow-talk creepiness). Glen is horrified by the prospect and feels he has failed as a parent.
Byrne’s character, an actress who says that as a teenager she also had a relationship with an older man, dismisses Glen’s concerns in strong terms. She tells him that age distinctions are arbitrary, or at least should be just one factor in a larger evaluation.
So it’s not a movie you’ll see at the multiplex next to the latest Marvel offering.
“When I was growing up a lot of dudes of that [older] generation had teenage girlfriends,” C.K., 49, said in an interview with several of his actors Sunday, a day after its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. “You’d see pictures of them at Studio 54, and they would have a girl on their lap who was obviously a teenager. And people would say” — he waves aside his hand — “oh, that guy just likes that.’”
Such taboos are at the center of C.K.’s film. The comedian has made a movie that will at once delight some fans with its audacity while emboldening a fair share of his critics, what with its talk of sexual politics and parenting in ways that are rarely put on the table.
Shot on the sly earlier this year in C.K.’s home city of New York, the film — which was acquired by specialty distributor The Orchard following the Toronto premiere — is independent in more than just thinking.
The “Louie” creator, famous for overseeing many aspects of the production and even distribution process, funded the entire project himself. As a result he was able to make some heavily noncommercial choices — including presenting the film in black-and-white and using orchestrations from the 1940s. The film feels, early and often, like an homage to throwback Woody Allen.
Fans will also recognize the setup from a more current entertainment moment. As it explores a C.K.-played character raising a daughter that takes advantage of his parental insecurities, “Daddy” takes the same kind of oddball slice-of-life approach as his critically acclaimed FX comedy series, with a bewildered C.K. at the center. Though Glen is more financially successful than C.K.’s “Louie” character, he’s not any closer to figuring out life, particularly life with his daughters.
Indeed, the film’s primary themes are showbiz success and parenting — whether the former creates more problems, and the latter forefronts an inability to solve them.
“I think all parents feel worried that way,” C.K. said as he sat with some members of his cast, including Edie Falco (his uptight producing partner in the film), Ebonee Noel (his daughter’s friend), Charlie Day (his foul-mouthed actor friend) and frequent collaborator Pamela Adlon (another foul-mouthed friend). “I worry that I talk about my kids without listening. So I put stuff in there like that because I think it’s funny.”
“I keep doing the same thing over and over [in my work],” he added with a nervously self-deprecating laugh.
As for the Byrne comments in the bedroom scene — and the potential criticism that he is legitimizing those opinions — C.K. said, “Some I agree with, and some I don't. But to not even talk about it?”
The show-business overtones come from a similar place of self-questioning as the parenting elements, he said. “I worry sometimes I’m making the actors and the crew do very traumatic and ridiculous things and they shouldn’t do half of them,” he said. “So this [character] is an expression of my fears of how I come across.”
Day waves aside those worries. “What’s refreshing is that art is not made by committee, and that’s not how this was done. That’s not how Louis does things,” he said.
Still, for all the irksomeness of studio notes, they can sometimes provide a check on more provocative ideas. C.K.’s total control is why the movie is willing to look at romance of wildly intergenerational differences, a point that is certain to be problematic to some viewers.
“Generations before us did … we don’t agree with, and you could discard a lot of ideas that seemed normal then as heinous now,” he said on the question of offending contemporary standards. “Years from now they’ll say that about our generation. And we’ll say, ‘It was 2017, that’s what was done.’ I don’t know what that would be — ”
“There’s nothing left,” said Falco.
The issue of viewing acts from decades before from a place of modern sensitivity and understanding brings the movie back to the Allen factor. That the film looks like a vintage Woody film only underscores the point.
So is this a comment on Allen’s life that, subversively, uses his own filmmaking tools?
C.K. cautioned not to read, well, too much into it.
“We both live in Manhattan, and we both like shooting in the city, and we both like old music, so our films will look similar,” he said. “It’s more about the bleeding edge between generations, between what one group thought was OK to do and [for] another now it’s not.”
He paused and gave another self-deprecating laugh. “It’s a big mess.”