Let’s get it out of the way: Louis CK’s I Love You, Daddy (Grade: B-), which was filmed in secret on an infinitesimal budget and added as a surprise to the TIFF line-up, is about Woody Allen. But the more general subject is lenience, a masochistic study of a man beset by all the slack he has cut for the things and people he loves out of a fear of not living up to their expectations. CK’s character, Glen, is a sitcom showrunner who has never reconciled his hero worship of the witty, neurotic writer-director “Leslie Goodwin” (John Malkovich) with the aging filmmaker’s reputation as a creep; he has also never figured out how to say no to his spoiled 17-year-old daughter, China (Chloë Grace Moretz), which becomes a real problem when she starts spending time with his idol. A literal “What if it was your daughter?” scenario, given an uneasy quality by some recurring allegations about CK himself, presented in the form of a shoestring production: spotty sound, visible boom mics, etc.
Some part of this movie seems to recognize its own incompleteness; it broadly quotes classic Hollywood drama through rear-projection effects, studio sets, obtrusively romantic music, and even a “The End” title card, each reference a joke on the shaggy, awkward, space-constrained drama. This is a New York City story that’s set not just among the privileged rich, but largely indoors. But then it’s also playing off Manhattan and Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita. As Goodwin, Malkovich doesn’t do an Allen impression; he recalls Allen indirectly, as a character of mannerisms in old-fashioned clothes who talks to everyone as though making a self-deprecating aside. The guy can go on and on about how he wants to sleep with an underage girl and still make everyone feel stupid for thinking that he’s trying to.
He’s kind of a perfect sociopath and, by extension, a perfect antagonist for Glen, who’s fixated on pleasing everyone and still ends up pissing off his friends and family. Not that they ever really have a showdown. The plot is really more of a springboard for various CK-ian dilemmas of adulthood, dysfunction, and responsibility, working the angles—recognizing that, say, just because a minor can have sexual fantasies about dirty old men doesn’t mean that dirty old men should have sex with minors. Its refusal to over-simplify gives it the structure of a rough cut. Being a grown-up, as far as I Love You, Daddy is concerned, means picking your failures and frustrations; it picks to be too long and poky.