Mrtoo many films have been saddled with seemingly sound plans that fail catastrophically in execution; less common is a film that relies on a plan so ill-advised that it could lead to disaster and is so guaranteed to end in failure that you wonder why the protagonist even attempted it.
The new film I Love My Daddy falls into the latter category, which is what attracted star Patton Oswalt. The combination of his face and voice has that special thing that makes one a sought-after character and a winning comedian, memorable but not obnoxious. He’s filmed hours and hours of specials, appeared in at least one episode of all your favorite sitcoms from Parks and Recreation to Curb Your Enthusiasm (though he thinks Arrested Development and Just Shoot Me! are the ones he’d most like order). ) and racked up roles in films ranging from beloved comedies to playing Ratatouille to an award-winning dramatic turn in Young Adult. “If they ask me, I’ll do it!” he laughs. “I like to do things.” His performance as a townie with more than his exterior as a disabled sad sack opposite Charlize Theron suggests his latest gig pushes him to new extremes of discomfort.
Oswalt devotes himself to a role most actors wouldn’t touch with rubber gloves: hapless Chuck, the one deadbeat dad who ruled them all, a man introduced to a dog he finds with his young son and then secretly destroys. LOST DOG poster featuring a kitten as a boy asks if he can have a master. He was tricked and hacked his way through life, rising to the top of an online chess league by copying moves from an automated program. His worst transgression is the basis of the film and comes from the real-life experiences of writer-director James Morosini, who also appears on screen as his own Franklin. After being blocked by Franklin on Facebook, Chuck creates a mannequin profile using photos of a nice diner waitress and flirts with his loins in a catfish flirtation that escalates to sexy and skin-cracking speed.
Even if sexting wasn’t visually represented in the awkward intimacy scenes between the two men this side of “Wet Hot American Summer” (and it is), the taboo-teasing performance would still demand as much empathy as the actor can muster. Oswalt soon realized that only by meeting Chuck at this level, however despicable, could he hope to achieve the kind of thinking that comes with an idea so staggeringly bad that it doesn’t lend itself to success.
“I think he’s one of those people who is very desperate for credit those who want to do the right thing,” Oswalt tells The Guardian from a Manhattan hotel room. “So it doesn’t really matter if his plan succeeds or if he’s just outraged, it’s all about ‘can’t people see that I want to do right by my son at the end of the day, even though I don’t follow through on anything?’ He taught himself that if he made a wonderful apology later, it didn’t matter what happened. Unfortunately, it shaped his life.
This is the work of an actor, polished to the core. At the heart of some gut-wrenching choices, Oswalt found momentum to tap into, seeing Chuck’s self-destructive boneheaded moves as an exaggerated form of the same ethical flaws we all live with. “I’m totally guilty of that too, I want to do well and I think that’s all that matters,” Oswalt readily admits. He realized that it wasn’t so much his own imperfections that separated him from Chuck, especially when it came to parenting, that it forced us all to accept different levels of human limitations. His daughter Alice may only be two years old, but their relationship has allowed him to imagine a less-than-happy version of them.
“It’s the first time I’ve really played a dad who, in his own messy way, is trying to fix things in a relationship that’s really broken,” says Oswalt. “It’s a very new perspective for me that I had to learn to accept. I hadn’t done parenting stuff before with just parenting. Playing the father of a son in his early twenties, I have to at least have an idea of what it was like when he was five, eight, twelve, and how I messed it up. It gave me a lot of emotions, remembering what my daughter was like at that time. What if I was careless and turned it off? It is so foreign and cruel to me. How does this guy compartmentalize, even if it’s subconscious, real self-loathing? How do you get out of bed in the morning carrying that load? His only recourse is to take this desperate measure and rationalize it to himself as helping a child who doesn’t know any better.
The clarity and unhesitatingness with which Oswalt delved into the nuts and bolts of acting endeared him to Morosini, though they first bonded as kindred “huge movie buffs.” In this warped portrait of paternal devotion, they both saw links to Frownland’s hysterical obsession and Toni Erdmann’s insufferable infatuation, and Morosini traced his influence to the mother-daughter conflict of Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata. “This broken relationship manifests itself in madness,” Oswalt explains. It is in such conversations that he is most engaged and entertaining. A genuine love of the game explains an astonishingly fruitful career that is about to enter its fourth decade. He will soon appear in the film adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s fantasy saga The Sandman, a graphic novel that entered Oswalt’s life during his sophomore year of college. “Books have shaped me a lot,” he says. “They sent me in the right direction.”
Sandman’s work falls more to Oswalt’s purview, which leans toward the nerd-approved side. During a memorable guest stop on Parks and Recreation, he improvised a minute-long monologue detailing his plans for the Star Wars franchise. It was launched by Agents of Shield, gave some voice to Eternals, and co-created the MODOK streaming series. As an authority on comics media (“No to the government, perhaps an authority,” he quickly corrects, adding that “is our Illuminati council”), he’s more qualified than most to comment on the state of the MCU superunion. Marvel’s complete dominance of the industry can’t last forever, and he believes expansion is the key to creative vitality. He envisions the modern-day equivalent of the Hollywood studio system circa the 1950s, where the benevolent negligence of executives led to some of America’s greatest film productions.
“Some people, like Buster Keaton, who are very free-riders, were crushed by the studio system,” Oswalt explains. “But others, like Vincente Minnelli and Michael Curtiz, have thrived, done amazing things with the system.” To dig deeper, here’s my question: When will Marvel unwittingly hire their own Douglas Sirk, the guy who comes in and smuggles in all kinds of hidden wealth that the studio doesn’t even see? It’s going to be great… We don’t know what a 20, 30, 40 million Marvel movie looks like yet.
Since then, he’s been eyeing the exciting potential of reduced maintenance, his reasoning ranging from the poorly remembered 1980s Aquaman to the much-maligned surrealist comedy ‘Til Death. He’s seen everything you’ve seen, and he’d like to discuss it – just five minutes into our conversation about Ramin Bahrani’s early work, the “hugely underrated” recent actioner Run & Gun and the grassroots phenomenon surrounding Tollywood’s masterpiece RRR. . A Perfect Stranger begins to understand what it means when an actor is described as “good in the room.”
Oswalt’s easygoing and amiable demeanor makes him the unexpected choice of a man confident in his ability to smile and shrug his way out of any predicament. In the case of I Love My Daddy, he uses his innate likability to unsavory ends, but off-screen it’s the secret to his longevity in an industry notorious for chewing up actors and spitting them out. He’s earned his stripes, he’s had his share of fame, he’s lost love, he’s found it again – he seems to have done it all and he’s just happy to be here.
More than anything, he genuinely loves his job, that rarest of privileges. A casual question about his one-line part in “Magnolia” prompts an excited flashback to being flown to Reno, taught baccarat by Paul Thomas Anderson, and then dangling from a tree in a full-body wetsuit on a brutal Californian. July morning. Oswalt still remembers the wisdom the director shared with him that day: “I only got to read one page of the script I’m in, so I’m confused. I’m a croupier, and now in a wetsuit? He wouldn’t say why, he just said, “You’re the first frog that fell from the sky.” Eventually I understood what he meant. And now we’re talking about the finer points of predicting when it works, when it doesn’t, who got it right, etc. ad infinitum. One gets the feeling that he has a million such stories and would happily spend eternity sharing them.