Although it’s definitely not a popular opinion to express in certain circles these days, I am, for the most part, a Robin Williams fan. I appreciate the unbridled madcap energy of his stand-up act, as well as the nuanced, thought-provoking performances he’s given in such underappreciated films as “One Hour Photo,” “The Final Cut,” and Mark Mylod’s off-beat 2005 thriller “The Big White.” I do, however, avoid the talented comedian’s mainstream fare like the proverbial plague; anyone who has bore witness to the cinematic monstrosity that is “RV” can attest to just how undeniably annoying Williams can be when he really puts his mind to it. Under the right circumstances, he excels at getting on my nerves.
Despite my appreciation of Williams’ quieter, more subdued performances, I approached writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait’s 2009 pitch-black comedy “World’s Greatest Dad” with much apprehension. Suffice it to say, I’m not exactly a fan of Goldthwait’s misguided beastiality tale “Sleeping Does Lie” (aka “Stay”), though I do have some fond memories of his directorial debut “Shakes the Clown,” which has become something of a cult item. His bizarre obsession with unusual sexual practices almost seems forced, as if that’s the only device he’s got stuffed in the ol’ gimmick bag. I’m no prude, but sex as comedy is just too damn easy.
With “World’s Greatest Dad,” Goldthwait appears to have matured as a filmmaker, fine-tuning his demented sensibilities into something more focused, more even-handed. Not that the former stand-up comedian has abandoned his dark side altogether — he’s just found a more relatable, easily digestible form of self-expression. Instead of featuring a dog-molesting lesbian or a washed-up, self-loathing clown as the centerpiece, Goldthwait gives us a well-mannered white bred high school teacher, one that is forced to contend with his degenerate son, his flirtatious girlfriend, and the constant threat of unemployment. The situation makes sense, and even when things take a turn for the outrageous towards the latter half of the picture, it never feels like its totally lost its grip on reality.
Williams stars as wannabe writer Lance Clayton, a man who is on the brink of giving up his dream of becoming a famous, world-renowned writer. To pay the bills, Lance teaches poetry at the local high school, an establishment which is also frequented by his foul-mouthed son Kyle (Daryl Sabara). Their relationship is tumultuous at best, as is Kyle’s absurdly abusive relationship with fellow classmate Andrew. In-between preventing his son from being enrolled in a “special needs” program and keeping his poorly-attended poetry class afloat, Lance strives to woo his girlfriend away from the muscular arms of the school’s hunky creative writing teacher.
About halfway through the picture, the story takes an abrupt, highly unexpected turn, effectively transporting this snarky, mean-spirited father-son character piece into much darker territories. I refuse to give away more, as the trailer does a fabulous job of keeping this twist away from prying eyes. I will say, however, that the scene which sets this chain reaction in motion is one of the most heart-breaking sequences in recent memory, punctuated by Goldthwait’s understated direction and a song choice that couldn’t be more fitting.
If you took Robin Williams completely out of the equation, I seriously doubt the film would have worked as well as it does. It’s his performance, along with “Spy Kids” alumni Daryl Sabara’s career-defining turn as Kyle, that make this whole seedy scenario seem plausible. The exchanges between them, regardless of the incendiary nature of their dialogue, isn’t too far removed from conversations parents have with their children on a daily basis, give or take a few choice phrases and, of course, Bruce Hornsby. There’s an uncanny intelligence at work here, and Williams knows precisely how to make it smarter.
“World’s Greatest Dad” is, thus far, the year’s smartest dark comedy, a picture that deftly balances humor, tragedy, and satire without missing a single beat. The underlying message about hero worship and its effect on the masses is timely without coming across as condescending, though there are several thinly-veiled references to an era of grunge history that are almost too loud to ignore. Bobcat Goldthwait is a filmmaker to watch, especially if he continues down the road he’s currently traveling. It’s certain to become a classic amongst followers of quirky, off-beat cinema, as well as those who have an unwavering appreciation of the human condition. Genuinely, heartbreakingly hilarious.
Bobcat Goldthwait (director) / Bobcat Goldthwait (screenplay)
CAST: Robin Williams … Lance Clayton
Alexie Gilmore … Claire
Daryl Sabara … Kyle
Michael Thomas More … Chris
Jermaine Williams … Jason
Evan Martin … Andrew