In his comedy, his writing and his social media presence, Patton Oswalt proves that nerdiness needn’t be a social liability. But in his most memorable screen roles — his disturbed, obsessive sports follower in “Big Fan” (2009), his withdrawn, physically challenged model-maker in “Young Adult” (2011) — he digs deep into the darker heart of dorkiness, if you will. His work in “I Love My Dad,” which won the audience award and the narrative feature award at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival, is similarly committed, and, where it can be, acute. Too bad the performance isn’t in a better movie.
While Oswalt’s character, Chuck, is a competent gamer and enjoys singing Cure songs at karaoke bars, his primary trait isn’t nerdiness so much as neediness. A pathological liar and an often absentee dad who has been letting his son, Franklin, down for decades, he nevertheless insists on connection.
Franklin, now in his 20s and played by the movie’s writer-director, James Morosoni, has not been thriving. A stay in a vaguely sketched recovery facility spurs him to sever harmful relationships. So he blocks his dad on social media.
This sends Chuck into a panic. In a diner he encounters Becca (Claudia Sulewski), a young waitress. Chuck invents a new social media account for her, through which he catfishes his lonely son, who immediately takes a liking to her.
All of the uncomfortable scenarios you could possibly imagine then ensue. In real life, being defrauded in this way is, one presumes, exhilarating. At least during the period in which you’re falling for the con. And then, of course, it’s excruciating in hindsight. Since the audience is in on the scheme from the start, what we get is excruciating, uncut. But not too excruciating, because Franklin is such a drab cipher it’s hard to work up much empathy for him.
The ostensibly comedic highlights include shots of Oswalt and Morosoni sloppily open-mouthed kissing. This, you see, contrasts the fantasy Franklin’s experiencing against the reality of what would be happening if … well, you get the idea. The remainder of the movie is a wait for the other narrative shoe to drop. After it does, a thoroughly improbable coda reminds us, once again, that in showbiz, it’s all about hope.
This is the second indulgent and unaffecting daddy-issue movie of the summer — the first was “My Dead Dad.” One prays that there will not be a third.
I Love My Dad
Rated R for language, themes, inappropriate sloppy kissing. Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes. In theaters.