‘Daddio’ Straps Dakota Johnson and Sean Penn Into a Talky Taxi Ride to Nowhere

A classic mistake aspiring screenwriters make is letting their script get swallowed up by dialogue. It seems easier to have the characters speak rather than let the camera speak. This is why a skillful, dialogue-heavy movie is no easy feat. Not everyone has Quentin Tarantino or David Mamet’s rhythms. “Daddio” is the directorial debut of screenwriter Christy Hall, who must have some pull considering she gets to place Dakota Johnson and Sean Penn into a taxi cab as her only two characters. Both are quite the personalities and you can imagine a million intriguing conversations between them. Instead, for two hours we get a lengthy chat about the typical movie perils of bad relationships.

People still hail taxis in New York and one of those people is a woman (Johnson) who gets into a cab driven by Clark (Penn). He’s one of those very chatty types and the enigmatic young woman asks to be called Girlie. After bemoaning the rise of rideshare apps, Clark starts snooping around Girlie’s life. We know she’s sending cryptic texts that verge on sexting with a mystery guy. Clark is such a wise hound seasoned by life that he quickly determines she’s involved with a married man. The rest of the ride becomes a virtual psychoanalysis by Clark of Girlie, all to warn her that most older men cheating on their wives are not doing it out of genuine love for the side girl. 

“Daddio” feels like the equivalent of one of those film school projects made by a student with resources who could hire notable names for their short. Consider that there’s not much to say about the aesthetic of the film. Hall sticks to a pretty basic structure of cutting from Johnson to Penn, occasionally throwing in a peek at the naughty texts in Girlie’s phone. Reportedly, Hall originally conceived of the idea as a stage play and it certainly feels that way. Beyond the windows of the cab there’s not much except a few lights and darkness. The focus is entirely on the talking heads. What they talk about has flashes of interest whenever they briefly get into their differences in age and social class. She’s a college grad and tech worker, he’s a proletarian man with street smarts. What is different from the clichés is that Penn’s character grapples within his dialogue with respecting Girlie but still having some of that classic boomer misogyny. He warns her guys like girls who are “pigs in the bedroom” for instance.

Alas, “Daddio” never really tries to go bold or truly edgy. Girlie’s affair comes across as so boring you wonder why she needs a lengthy chat about her daddy issues. The texts her secret lover, “L,” sends over are rather amateurish pleas for her to send him an under the skirt pic or two, because “I need to cum.” When Girlie seems to subtly tease Clark, the material feels like it could get more intriguing by raising new possibilities. But the only ones being teased are the audience, since the conversation falls back into its usual rhythms. What Hall wants to explore or get across is never clear in the narrative. Do daddy issues always lead to seeking out married men? Does Clark do a therapy session with every rider or just the attractive ones? The details he spills about his previous marriages don’t offer much insight aside from his warning that most men are horny trash, so watch out.

Any swerves into new territory never happen and Clark eventually drops off Girlie at her destination. His wisdom will now carry on and maybe Girlie won’t respond to L’s texts from now on. We need to make up our own resolutions when filing out of the theater. “Daddio” has the one merit of letting us see Johnson and Penn chat, laugh, semi-flirt and chew gum for 1 hour and 41 minutes. These two are so talented the script could have been a conversation about glazed donuts or stomach problems and they would have been completely engaging. Hall’s premise just doesn’t give them worthy layers to play around with. There’s no genuine pain, lust or internal war going on here. It feels too much like chit chat about bad romances without any true insight into the real thing.

Daddio” releases June 28 in theaters nationwide.