Wolrd’s Greatest Dad (2009)
The name Bobcat Goldthwait doesn’t exactly make you think accomplished filmmaker. Goldthwait is best known for his screechy, nervous voice utilized in animated features and the hallowed Police Academy series. But he’s also a writer and a director. His first effort was 1991’s Shakes the Clown, starring Bill Murray as an inept bank-robbing clown. Then he wrote and directed a 2006 movie called Sleeping Dogs Lie that centered on the romantic foibles of a woman who, on a whim, once gave her dog oral pleasure. I can’t see Hollywood touching that one with a ten-foot pole. These sort of unconventional, risky artistic concepts might prepare you for Goldthwait’s newest black comedy, the ironically titled World’s Greatest Dad.
Lance Clayton (Robin Williams) is an underappreciated man. His teenage son, Kyle (Daryl Sabara), hates him. He cannot find anyone interested in published his many manuscripts. His colleagues think little of him, students don’t attend his poetry class, and his quasi-girlfriend, Claire (Alexie Gilmore) is showing more interest in Mike (Henry Simmons), the new hunky, successful English teacher that got a story published in the New Yorker on his first try. Then everything changes. Lance comes home to find his son dead of auto-erotic asphyxiation. He rearranges the body and writes a suicide note, attempting to spare his son from being mocked in death. But then the school hacks into the police system and prints Kyle’s suicide note. The entire school is awash in grief and discovers what an insightful, troubled young man Kyle was. They all want to know everything they can about Kyle, and suddenly Lance has found an outlet for his writing.
The movie satirizes grief culture with sharp acuity. Kyle’s classmates all react with horror and look back with extreme rose-colored glasses. Suddenly their fallen peer has transformed from the kid nobody liked into the wounded soul that touched all their lives. Bullies reexamine their behavior, girls that never would have given him the time of day now immortalize Kyle, and the faculty that wanted to expel him now wishes to rename the library in his lasting memory. This warm, fuzzy gauze of grief is Goldthwait’s target. He is satirizing how people turn tragedy into hypocritical attitude shifts. He ridicules the easy revision of history under the guise of collective sympathy. Not every youth is necessarily taken before their time. Not everyone was going to grow up to contribute selflessly to society, making the world a better place to live. Not every youth is deserving of canonization. Some people are just jerks from beginning to end, and Goldthwait proposes we do a disservice when we whitewash reality in the name of kindness and good taste. The only person who can see through this wave of hypocrisy is Kyle’s only friend, Andrew (Evan Martin), who doesn’t remember his crabby buddy being deep, articulate, or remotely smart.
Goldthwait’s screenplay is seriously dark and twisted but it’s also routinely hilarious, notably utilizing a deranged sense of irony. Lance uses his own son’s death as the vessel to become a respected writer. He uses his own dead son as his literary pen name. For once in his life, Lance now has an insatiable and adoring audience for his writings, and to top it all off they won’t dare be critical. Lance is manufacturing his son’s legacy and gaining unbeknownst critical praise. That’s fairly dark and fairly amusing stuff. It’s also funny that Kyle’s death has a greater positive effect on the community than Kyle being alive. The school rallies together and students use the death to justify personal growth. The fake journal of Kyle’s touches and enlightens, which further pumps up Lance’s ballooning ego and sense of purpose. At one point, a talk show host raises the question of whether it’s better to be a good person or thought of as a good person, and this gets to the heart of Lance’s dilemma. His actions are morally questionable. What started as an effort to protect his son’s dignity has morphed into personal gain. Is the world a better place because of this false rendering of Kyle? Is the lie better than the ugly truth? Is the lie justifiable? I honestly never expected to be confronted with tricky ethical questions while watching a movie made by Bobcat Goldthwait.
This is the best work Robin Williams has done in years, which I understand might not be saying much considering his recent slate of brain-dead family comedies. He hasn’t shown this much restraint, and talent, since his 2002 World Tour of Evil that included One Hour Photo and the masterful Insomnia. Williams drops every pretense of his well-known manic funnyman shtick and plays an actually subdued character. Lance is beaten down by the disappointments of his job and fatherhood. Williams effectively coveys the exhaustion of a man who repeatedly fails to connect with his brat of a boy. He doesn’t know what to do; the kid is practically a sullen stranger in his own house. Williams endures such slights and misfortunes with deadpan humor and sarcasm and the audience actually vaguely sympathizes with him through much, if not all, of the second half. Williams is mostly reactive and can come across like a calculated straight man to Goldthwait’s cracked-out script. You feel for the guy when he can capitalize on his son’s death and you practically want him to get away with it all.
Sabara has grown up considerably since being the chubby little tyke in the Spy Kids movies. It’s amazing how much you will detest his character. This kid is perverted, repugnant, obstinate, and just plain idiotic. He hates music (“All music? You hate all music?”), he hates movies, and he dislikes pretty much everything other than extreme pornographic fetishes. Kyle is a nightmarish child with no redeeming value. He had to be in order for the satire to work.
World’s Greatest Dad is a misanthropic hoot of a movie but that doesn’t mean it is without flaws. Goldthwait has yet to prove any particular style or vision behind the camera. His direction isn’t a distraction by any means but it mostly just presents the story in an unobtrusive fashion. He also has the annoying habit of using music selections as a storytelling crutch. He?s prone to using several songs that describe the onscreen drama to a literal level. For a script as biting and clever, it’s disappointing that Goldthwait feels the need to use songs to spell out his implicit drama. This being satire, by nature the characters are mostly going to be thin. The classmates are little more than a cross sectional representation of high school stereotypes, ready to slide in for a joke. Other side characters are weak due to being underwritten or dropped. Claire is a shallow love interest flitting from suitor to suitor, offering little more than a conquest. Mike works as a foil to Lance but then is completely forgotten about in the second half. There’s one interesting scene where Mike, Lance, and the principal are all golfing and the roles are reversed, Lance is the confidant and respected colleague and Mike is jockeying for approval. But that’s pretty much the last you’ll ever see his character in a meaningful way other than taking up space in the background.
In the end, World’s Greatest Dad is not a comedy that will leave your sides aching or seams in need of stitching. It’s dark and disturbing but unlike the earlier Observe and Report, this movie actually provides an entry point for empathy. It’s provocative and twisted but it never pushes the audience out of the story. The intriguing setup is explored with careful consideration. The characters manufacture a false love for a kid that was all but ignored, and everyone is worthy of scorn to some degree. Even Lance is worthy of derision considering he’s exploiting sympathy to find the success that has eluded him his entire life. But Williams’ performance and Goldthwait’s sharp screenplay keep the film grounded amidst its satirical targets. Most surprising of all, there’s a a sweetness that emerges from this film’s black core. Lance regains a sense of humanity and purpose, and so do we due to his journey. Golthwait has come up with an unusual, morbid, and cynical comedy that manages to be somewhat life affirming by its final reel. I can’t believe I?m saying this, but I believe Bobcat Goldthwait is establishing himself as a strong comedic voice in the world of film. I eagerly await the next movie by the guy who did all the funny voices in Police Academy.
Nate’s Grade: A-