SXSW 2022: I Love My Dad – Patton Oswalt, the Cinephile’s Comedian

Have you read Patton Oswalt’s book about watching movies? He’s one of us! In 2015’s Silver Screen Fiend, Oswalt detailed an unhealthy love for movies. It was an all consuming need to watch them, to process them, to chase the high of the next great movie. Addiction is best understood as continuing to do something when that action continues to produce harmful results. Going to the movies can be an addiction, sure. He writes so beautifully about his relationship to them. About going to Hollywood for the first time and really digging into the culture and establishing an entirely new relationship with the medium. The cinema became a place of worship. It is for so many of us. At festivals, we watch endless amounts of movies, no matter what the consequences. Yes, our eyes hurt by the end. Our brains are buzzing and scrambled with mixed plot details from fifteen different films. We work hard at it because we love movies earnestly and probably problematically. They are the best vessel for visual storytelling, moving images that capture intensity of feeling better than any medium. We get it.

Patton Oswalt is also, secretly, a very admirable actor. Oswalt is the cinephile’s comedian. He may get lumped in with acts like Jim Gaffigan and Brian Regan, as a matter of general affability, but his on-screen work out-performs his contemporaries. Don’t lump him in. Cinema continues to be crucial for the comedian. It continues to provide salvation, a cellophane solution to how hard and unfair life can be. He is also a testament to perseverance, having tragically lost his wife Michelle McNamara six years ago (author of 2018’s great posthumous I’ll Be Gone in the Dark) and has remarried and continues working, because it is utterly necessary. Like watching movies, making them is a great act of faith and trust in the process. Cinema brings us all together and lets us feel things together. Even in a festival where we have just watched fifteen films.

We watch too many movies. Too many road trip movies. Too many rom-coms. None are quite like I Love My Dad, a father-son road trip romance where Chuck (Patton Oswalt) catfishes his son Franklin (James Morosini) into reconnecting. After years of failed promises and not showing up in his son’s life, Chuck meets a beautiful young woman called Becca (Claudia Sulewski), who works at his neighborhood diner. His son has just gotten out of a support group for self-harm and is desperately eager to connect with anyone. As a troubling and misguided way of getting back to his son, Chuck creates a profile for Becca, and begins an online courtship of his son, which results in driving his son to a hypothetical meeting that the real-life Becca knows nothing about. It’s a simple, seemingly manipulative premise, of course, but it is used amusingly to mine for deeper emotion.

Parental bonding has never been more peculiar. Since Franklin will not meet Becca for much of the runtime, their relationship remains frankly text-based. During the road trip, Chuck has to play both sides, upholding his status as the long-gone parent trying to reconnect and the hypothetical catfishing woman trying to get in his son’s pants. It’s played out well, not relying on text-on-screen to inform the relationship. Instead, the film imagines Becca is always right next to Franklin. There isn’t a lot of meat there but the direct and funny script keeps the film moving and its unusual premise motivates the story with enough built-in anxiety that you’ll simply have to see how this plays out. It’s funny, sad, and moving, all at once.

The filmmakers stay out of the way. Co-star James Morosini directs but his style and exact drive behind the camera is not yet evident in his sophomore movie, although the story is his, and amusingly based partly in connection with his own father. Patton Oswalt leads the film and his acting seems to direct the characters around him. It’s all highly functional, within the internal dysfunctions of the characters themselves. There are parts that still need to be shored up. Clips without audio added, that may be meant to play as soundless revelations about characters, or to hide what they are saying, but more likely, need to be dubbed over with a few lines to make the film really feel complete. It’s just about there and has curious emotional potential. There’s enough here for fans of Oswalt, joining his other very-good performance in 2009’s Big Fan (I’m a Big Fan) as a convincing testament to his acting ability. He may be a funny kind of multi-hyphenate after-all. All those years of binging movies has paid off. And it pays off for us, when we find something amusingly sweet and agreeably lightweight like I Love My Dad.


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