‘Daddio’ review: A blasé drama set during the worst cab ride of your life


Dead on arrival at JFK, the one-scene, one-location Daddio unfolds in the most boring, unpleasant airport cab ride you can imagine. Writer/director Christy Hall’s feature-length film debut follows a long, monotonous conversation about the nature of men, women, and relationships, led by a character whose idea of sexual power play seems copied verbatim from Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother, with as much charm and nuance.

The premise is not altogether unworkable: It’s really two conversations, one of which unfolds over text message in the taxi’s backseat. This is also the more intriguing of them, because the verbal chat between a young woman and her middle-aged driver is as dry and coarse as sandpaper — and about as flavorful — thanks in no small part to the movie’s unimaginative directing.

What is Daddio about?

Dakota Johnson in "Daddio."

Credit: Phedon Papamichael / Sony Pictures Classics

Dakota Johnson plays an unnamed blonde woman returning to New York from Oklahoma after a brief family visit. A grizzled Sean Penn plays Clark, a world-weary cab driver who strikes up a conversation with his passenger, before proceeding to read her like an open book. He claims he’s no detective, but the movie’s own writing disagrees, since he’s able to unpack even seemingly insignificant gestures to reverse-engineer entire backstories. For instance, the woman’s refusal to engage with him at one point is inexplicable proof that she’s having an affair with a married man.

Even if one were to take Daddio at its word, as the story of a genius with a cynical worldview (someone should’ve told Hall there’s already a New York-based Sherlock: Elementary on CBS), the film is hardly engaging enough to sustain that premise. As the pair’s conversation meanders en route to midtown Manhattan — a 45-minute journey extended by traffic — Clark reveals information about his young passenger that she really ought to know about herself already, like observations about her intelligence and insecurities, and even what her older boyfriend wants (and doesn’t want) out of their illicit fling.

All the while, her texts with her drunken beau tell their own story, between the messy, sexually charged replies she receives and her own reluctance to engage. And yet, the movie’s focus constantly wanders away from this Russian nesting doll premise — one conversation hidden beneath another — in order to have Clark express, in broad terms, streetwise wisdom verging on the misanthropic, and explanations of psychosexual dynamics so basic and ill-informed they’d make Freud’s cartoon caricatures turn in their graves.

However, despite the passenger’s story seeming much more interesting than Clark’s, the two characters are also played by actors who deflate and elevate their respective material, making for a strange narrative dissonance.

Daddio features one great and one grating performance.  

Sean Penn in "Daddio."

Credit: Phedon Papamichael / Sony Pictures Classics

While some might find Penn’s casting distasteful — he’s playing a man with a deeply misogynistic streak, and he has real-world abuse allegations — his presence is often captivating because of the nuances he brings to each exchange. Clark could be (and usually is) talking about the most banal subject, like the way phones are taking over people’s lives, but Penn’s belief in Hall’s rote dialogue helps sell Clark as a fully rounded character.

His eyes and his weathered expression tell of someone who’s lived a full and complicated life. This is confirmed when he plainly narrates his backstory, but what he says is never quite as interesting as how he says it, as though he’s searching for human connection (or something more) while being careful not to step over too many boundaries at once. Throughout the movie, Penn plays an intricate game rooted in social cues and probing questions, and he listens as much as he speaks.

On the other hand, while Johnson plays a woman distracted by her romantic woes, she never seems particularly interested in the story. She feels disconnected from the premise in its entirety, both the character’s verbal and text conversations, as though her mind were elsewhere. When she does try to play with the material, the result doesn’t inspire confidence. When she reciprocates Clark’s attempts at flirting, her disengaged, wet-blanket delivery makes her seem less like a real character and more like the vague idea of a cinematic seductress, as though she were simply going through the motions of the script, rather than responding out of either genuine attraction or even self-preservation.

That latter question, of Clark’s real intentions, is broached numerous times by Penn’s performance; even his most innocuous interactions feel curiously layered. However, it seldom seems to cross Johnson’s (or her character’s) mind — or the movie’s, for that matter, given how plain and straightforward its filmmaking tends to be.

Daddio is boring to look at (and listen to).

Dakota Johnson in "Daddio."

Credit: Phedon Papamichael / Sony Pictures Classics

You could let your gaze drift and your attention wander, and you wouldn’t really miss much of Daddio. It’s an audiobook that just happens to have a cinematic element; it features two, maybe three significant camera setups during its 101-minute runtime, which it cuts between with mechanical precision until you’re familiar with exactly what the frame might look like at any given moment. It’s comfortable, but never surprising or exciting, especially when it needs to be: in moments the conversation takes deeply personal turns.

Comparing Daddio to Steven Knight’s Locke might seem far too obvious, since both movies take place almost entirely within cars over a single evening. However, the contrast between them is illustrative. Knight ensured that each story beat was accompanied by its own unique visual approach, with enough variety in the shot selection to keep things exciting. Daddio features no such modulation. It cuts back and forth between identical close-ups of Penn and Johnson for much of its runtime, frames which have little to say about each character beyond presenting them in the most functional manner (i.e. so that their dialogue and facial expressions are entirely legible).

Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael does at least manage to capture Clark with genuine intrigue a handful of times, lighting Penn’s eyes through the reflection of his rear-view mirror as though his gaze were drawn to something mysterious and alluring in the backseat. But this, too, is a well that eventually runs dry the fourth or fifth time the shot reappears.

The filmmaking problems, however, aren’t limited to what’s inside Clark’s taxi. Papamichael captures light and lens flares streaming through its windows on occasion, as though there were some exciting sense of life beyond the confines of the conversation. However, Hall takes a surprisingly dull approach to the movie’s atmosphere. There’s seldom any noise, or any hustle and bustle outside the cab despite the constant movement, nor is there much music to enhance the movie’s ebb and flow. All we’re left with is a chat underscored by awkward dead air and no sense of ambience, which can’t help but make Daddio play like an incomplete assembly cut, with neither the right sounds nor the right conversational rhythms through its editing.

By the time Daddio reaches its destination — emotionally and geographically — it does manage to access, at the very last minute, something true to life within Johnson’s character. Her performance is finally given the opportunity to bloom and reveal difficult dimensions, but the movie ends no sooner than this begins, as though it were merely the first half of a much more interesting story we never get to see.

Daddio was reviewed out of the 2024 Tribeca Film Festival.

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