In the discomfiting dysfunctional comedy, “I Love My Dad,” Chuck (Patton Oswalt), a compulsive liar, is estranged from his son Franklin (writer/director James Morosini, who based the film on his real life) for being a bad dad. Chuck breaks promises. He has lame excuses. He disappoints, repeatedly. Franklin decides to cut him out of his life. When Chuck is blocked by Franklin, it prompts him to try to reconnect with his son — who is fragile having attempted suicide — by creating a fake online identity. Pretending to be Becca (Claudia Sulewski), a young woman who claims to have romantic interests in Franklin, Chuck is able to learn about his son and say things to Franklin he has been unable to express otherwise.
It’s a foolish, harebrained scheme, right out of “Cyrano” and “Who You Think I Am” — and it is bound to backfire. Except it might just bring estranged father and son closer together (as long as Franklin never learns the truth). And “I Love My Dad” is hilarious, heartfelt, or hateful, depending on one’s tolerance for cringe-comedy.
“That’s when I do the most lying: to myself. You have to be a good liar to put that off, so I’m very proud of myself.”
Oswalt has a field day as Chuck, a desperate man who hopes to repair a relationship he broke but doubles down on his bad behavior in his awkward and wrongheaded attempts to fix things. It is amusing to see Chuck texting Franklin while pretending to be a lovesick woman, but he also has a wild sexual exchange with his colleague/girlfriend Erica (Rachel Dratch) whom he manipulates in one scene to keep up the charade.
The actor/comedian, talked with Salon about parenting, lying, and making “I Love My Dad.”
Chuck is a compulsive liar. On what occasions do you lie or manipulate things?
I think the most lying that I do is to myself, especially when I’m blowing off a deadline, or when I am justifying some dumb thing that I’m doing — or not doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I’ll justify it as self-care and relaxation when I’m just blowing stuff off. That’s when I do the most lying: to myself. You have to be a good liar to put that off, so I’m very proud of myself.
Chuck is comic or pathetic. I could smell him sweating throughout the film. [Oswalt laughs.] You must inform every scene with a choice on how to play it, how far to push things. Can you talk about that process?
“I really don’t like pranks. I have never understood the appeal . . . People have enough tension in their lives. “
That was mainly up to the script and the scene and the context of the moment. I never really worried about how far I can take this, I just let myself serve the scene and the overall story even if that meant putting myself in very uncomfortable positions — even for an audience to watch. I was just very open to that.
Can you talk about working with James, who both directed and lived this story?
He was focused on directing and acting in it, so I was focused on serving the script the best I can. He had enough plate-spinning. I just tried to stay out of his way.
Why is Chuck such a bad dad? He almost always makes a bad move and then tries to overcompensate. What drives him? He is so untrustworthy!
I think that he is afflicted with that thing — with him it is permanent, but I think all of us experience it — that “Don’t I get credit for wanting to be good. Do I have to bother going through with the thing? See how I wanted to do this? Doesn’t that get me any credit?” He can’t believe people are expecting a follow through. He made it a part of his life to be heartfelt and charming with apologies, so he knows, subconsciously, he can get out of doing things, or make up for it later. He has stuck himself in a weird comfort loop, even though it is shredding him psychologically and emotionally.
Yes, the beauty of your performance is that as a viewer, you are calibrating each scene. I never thought “He’s going to do something right,” it was more, “He’s not going to go too far.” Chuck is not going to “be better,” but “be less.”
Nope! Not Chuck! [Laughs]
There is an amusing three-way “phone sex” scene between Chuck and Franklin and Erica. It was mildly uncomfortable, but there is another scene where you and James just go for broke and kiss passionately. It’s like I wanted it to go there, but then I was almost sorry it did. [Oswalt laughs]
You have to talk to James about that. It was part of the script, and it was all cut together. What made that scene work is that you realize the levels of love and lust that James had for this character of Rebecca. Now it is being transferred on to his dad, so it had to be that way.
Patton Oswalt and James Morosini in “I Love My Dad” (Magnolia Pictures)
Chuck at times tries to boost Franklin’s self-esteem. His friend Jimmy (Lil Rel Howery) insists Franklin keep his expectations low. I know you have struggled with trauma in your life. Do you lower your expectations? How do you keep a sunny disposition?
Not to sound cliché, but I count my blessings when I feel low and angry at myself. I get to do comedy. My daughter is awesome. My friends are amazing. I get to watch them do well. I’m in an industry where I am paid to be creative. You have to do check-ins like that where you remind yourself before you go spiraling off.
Speaking of being creative, I understand you have a comic book, “Minor Threats” coming out. Can you talk about that project?
Yes! That comes out Wednesday, Aug. 24. I wrote it with Jordan Blum. We are two huge comic book fans, and we decided to make our own universe and do it from the point of view of low-level, blue-collar supervillains who are dealing with the fallout of a massive supervillain taking out a massive hero, and now all the other heroes are cracking down so hard, the street-level supervillains are thinking, “Maybe we should turn this guy in, and get a little credit.” They are fighting to keep their normal, low-level criminal lives going.
“Watching this film with strangers in the dark is a very memorable, very cringe-y, fun experience.”
Chuck tells Erica that he is a practical joker and likes to play pranks. Can you talk about a prank you pulled that was either epic or an epic failure?
I really don’t like pranks. I have never understood the appeal. I don’t pull pranks on people. It’s not my thing. People have enough tension in their lives.
Given this is a father/son film, what can you say about your relationship with your father or your relationship with your daughter? How do you see being a child or a parent?
I didn’t pull from experience with my dad because my dad is pretty awesome, and I have a really good relationship with him. And yes, while my daughter and I have been through some trauma together, I love hanging out with her and still like being a parent. That wasn’t anything I pulled from for the film.
What observations do you have about parenthood?
Be excited to be a parent; just show up every day. You don’t need to be awesome in terms of, “Oh, we did this craft and it turned out to be great.” They don’t care about the results of what they are doing. They just want to know that you want to spend time with them, and that you are excited to be with them. Even if what you are trying to do doesn’t work out, that can still be fun.
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What do you like to do with your daughter?
I’m a big movie buff, so we will watch movies together. She likes trying to build Legos. And she is very much into sports. I’ll watch her play basketball, do trampoline and gymnastics, and encourage her. Then we will try to go and play basketball, even though I’m horrible at it, which she thinks is hilarious.
What do you think audiences should get from this film? Not to catfish your son?
I don’t want to tell audiences what to get from it. I just hope they have an amazing experience in theater. Watching this film with strangers in the dark is a very memorable, very cringe-y, fun experience. That’s what I hope they get from it.
“I Love My Dad” is currently in theaters and available on demand Friday, Aug. 12. Watch a trailer, via YouTube.