The audience was incredibly lucky. Or at least the man behind the film they were about to see thought so.
“You’re the only audience in the history of the world who will ever see this without knowing what it’s about,” Louis CK reportedly said at the Toronto Film Festival premiere of his new movie, I Love You, Daddy. Little did the crowd, or the director himself, know that this would also be one of the last audiences to see the film before the Harvey Weinstein bombshell detonated.
After attending a screening in New York this week, I can guarantee that I Love You, Daddy–whose plot we’ll get to in a moment–will be viewed in a far more damning light when it’s released next month.
The film‘s mostly rapturous reception at TIFF was already tainted by another discomforting news story. While promoting her Amazon series, One Mississippi, comedian Tig Notaro called on estranged pal Louis CK to “handle” the sexual harassment allegations against him. For years, stories have swirled that CK has a habit of forcing women in comedy to watch him masturbate. (Louis CK’s response has been to at first ignore the allegations, and then to dismiss them.) Tig Notaro simply made the rumors harder to ignore–not that it was ever okay to pretend they didn’t exist. After the Weinstein scandal broke, it’s now impossible–especially considering the subject of CK’s new movie.
I Love You, Daddy is a neo-screwball comedy about whether it’s truly possible to separate art from the artist. In this case, the artist is essentially Woody Allen, whose Manhattan CK’s film recalls in both style and substance. Louis CK stars as Glen Topher, an extremely Louis CK-like TV writer who worships at the altar of Leslie Goodwin, a Woody surrogate played by John Malkovich. Topher is willing to dismiss the (vaguely described) accusations of child molestation against proud horndog Goodwin… right up until Goodwin takes up with Topher’s barely illegal daughter, China (Chloë Grace Moretz). Meanwhile, another moral dilemma arises when pregnant actress Grace Cullen (Rose Byrne) seems interested in sleeping with Topher if he helps her cross over into comedy. It’s a film generously larded with provocation, something its creator has never shied away from.
This time, though, it feels different.
By making a movie about the struggle to reconcile accusations against Louis CK’s Blue Jasmine director, Woody Allen, CK has also made a movie about the audience’s struggle with himself. This is a film that’s aware of its creator’s reputation. Lest that layer be lost on viewers, one scene finds Charlie Day’s wily sidekick miming masturbation (to completion!) in front of Edie Falco. (Another scene has Topher apologizing to “Women,” as in the entire gender.) All of this may have been intended as a boiling hot gumbo of catharsis, reckoning, and trolling–a playful way to comment on the allegations against him without actually commenting–but it no longer feels that way. Now that sexual harassment and sexism have dominated the discourse for two weeks–spilling out into every facet of the entertainment industry–Louis CK’s intentions look more self-serving. The film now 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.
It’s been almost a year since the world found out, in no uncertain terms, that Donald Trump is a sexual predator. He literally admitted it on tape, but America still elected his ass president. Now, the powerful reaction to the Weinstein news suggests that maybe, just maybe, there is interest in changing the culture that allows this type of unconscionable behavior to go unchecked. Into this conversation walks a filmmaker asking audiences to think more critically about whether to believe or judge artists whispered to be sexual predators.
Setting aside the awkward timing of a male-written movie with a reverse–casting couch subplot and a sidekick who is the human embodiment of locker room talk, the way the film regards open secrets is troubling. “That’s just a rumor,” Louis CK says about the allegations against John Malkovich’s esteemed auteur, echoing how he dismissed his own allegations in real life. “It’s a fucked-up, unproven story. He was never charged for that,” the character continues. Sure, it’s only a character saying so, and early in the film at that, but it’s also the opening salvo to a game of devil’s advocate the real Louis CK is in no position to play.
By the time his character says, “Never judge anybody on their private life,” accepts Les Goodwin’s creative notes right in the middle of a confrontation about maybe dating his teenage daughter, or takes comfort from another character declaring, “Everyone’s a pervert,” the audience has an idea of where he stands.
In making a case for not believing certain rumors, Louis CK is making a case for not believing women. Bill Cosby is a free man because people didn’t believe women. Donald Trump is the president because people didn’t believe women. Nobody might have believed the case against Harvey Weinstein if not for audio proof of him being disgusting to women. A policy of disregarding these kinds of rumors only protects the powerful men who stand accused. The real Woody Allen is surely aware of how dangerous it is for him if people start believing women. While prominent actors and directors publicly flagellate themselves for not speaking out about Weinstein sooner, even though they knew about his crimes, this man is worried that the avalanche of Weinstein accusers will lead to “a witch hunt.”
After surviving the renewed outrage in 2014 over allegations that he sexually abused his daughter, Dylan Farrow, it’s anyone’s guess why Woody Allen felt compelled to weigh in. With his “witch hunt” comments, though, he adds a new ugly stain to the character Malkovich portrays in I Love You, Daddy. Although clearly modeled after Allen, Les Goodwin at least acknowledges what he is. At one point in the film, he admits, “Great poetry comes from our flaws.” In Allen’s mind, the flaw apparently lies with anyone who would risk snuffing out poetry by going after a poet who hurt people. Although Louis CK’s film wasn’t made just to humanize Woody Allen, its attempts to do so come at one of the worst times imaginable.
What the Weinstein story does to the “art vs. artist” argument is obliterate it. What a luxury, at this time, to grapple with whether it’s still okay to watch Annie Hall! After the Weinstein revelation, it feels irrelevant. This is no time for a glib artistic conversation about whether great artists should get a hall pass on their open secrets. Releasing this movie now is like when that album by The Coup came out around 9/11, with an image of the band blowing up the World Trade Center on the cover–but if The Coup had also happened to have a rumored association with terrorism.
Is I Love You, Daddy even a good movie? I don’t know. Maybe if the 2017 audience knew absolutely nothing about the Weinstein scandal or Louis CK’s personal situation, they could evenly assess. It’s not Louis CK’s fault that the former is currently unfolding, but it seems intentional that it brings into sharp relief his own reputation. He sat through however many takes of Charlie Day pretending to masturbate in front of Edie Falco, knowing full well who it would remind people of: himself. He just probably never predicted his personal baggage would be so relevant to the national conversation when the movie came out. Now, he can no longer pretend that his baggage doesn’t matter, and neither can we.
“I’m not gonna answer to that stuff because they’re rumors,” isn’t good enough. This isn’t the Richard Gere gerbil story. It’s not some ultimately innocuous urban myth that would be embarrassing if people thought it true. This is a case of multiple female comedians and writers describing the same specific behavior anonymously, because none wants to be known as the comedian who publicly accused, with zero proof, someone whose head is on the Mount Rushmore of comedy. The alleged behavior some might rationalize as no big deal–because, hey, it’s not rape under the legal definition–is, indeed, a big deal. It dehumanizes women. It puts them in an impossible position. It needs to be dealt with.
As comedian and writer Megan Koester wrote in a blog post recently, it’s difficult to even ask other comics about Louis CK’s alleged behavior because the greater comedy community seems invested in protecting its own. If nothing else comes of I Love You, Daddy, at least it has rendered more porous the borders blocking that conversation. At one point in the film, Charlie Day’s character is rewarded for his bluntness by outright asking Les Goodwin if he “fucked that kid.” It’s as welcoming of an invitation as any. Because of that moment alone, emboldened fans will ask Louis CK, for years to come, if he forced women to watch him masturbate. I guess the joke is on him.