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World’s Greatest Dad: Death, Lies, and Perversion… With Heart and Laughs

When someone dies, it always brings out the best in people—even if they didn’t know the person who died. Instead of using this as the subject of heartwarming melodrama, Bobcat Goldthwait creates a pitch-black satire of humanity’s response to premature death in World’s Greatest Dad. The beautiful twist of the film—the young victim was a dumb, perverted, and twisted individual—generates laughs from places you’d never suspect. While Goldthwait’s acting might lead one to believe that a comedy from him would be broad, it couldn’t be more restrained; every detail is based in a cruel reality. He even manages to button down the seemingly uncontrollable Robin Williams, who achieves some terrific dramatic moments and gives one of the best performances of his career.

Williams plays Lance, a high school English teacher and aspiring writer. He has two problems: his books are never good enough to be published, and his son (Daryl Sabara) is a foul-mouthed, porn-obsessed misfit, not unlike you’d see on an episode of Jerry Springer. When the son kills himself, Lance writes a suicide note to give his son’s death some meaning. The note leaks to the local papers, and suddenly everyone at the school is moved by this freak’s hidden depth. When students and teachers alike, including Lance’s hot casual hookup partner, request more of his son’s writing, Lance pours out a diary of feeling and emotion, and signs Kyle’s name. It becomes an enormous hit, leading to book deals, TV appearances, and all of the other trappings that come with the 15 minutes of fame attached to being the parent of a tragically lost child.

This movie is one of those rare comedies that takes no prisoners yet never bounds into the unrealistic. Society is constantly bombarded with the circus that surrounds an unexpected death. The parents are cast into the limelight and the victims are deified. The timing of this film arriving so soon after the Michael Jackson death couldn’t be more fortuitous. In that scenario, we had scores of people who mocked and harbored ill will towards the eventual victim, but after the death, he was held up as an angel and his perceived flaws were swept under the rug. Whether or not his flaws were real or not, they were certainly publicly discussed, and his wacky persona seemed to justify the labels. Here, we have a child who everyone has correctly labeled as perverted and mean… but once he dies, and they hear about the heart he allegedly had, they are relieved to learn he was a good kid and deify him in order to mask their guilt. The parallels are uncanny.

Goldthwait makes sure we know the kid is an evil little twerp too. Sabara plays him with a viciousness and a pottymouth that would make any parent thankful he’s not theirs, but it’s never too far—there are kids that really do say these things and swear at their parents and view normal sexual activity as whatever they see in pornography. Williams shows that while he wants his kid to improve, and he loves him deep down, he is not one of these parents in denial about what his kid truly is. There’s a sadness to Williams, but he never makes Lance out to be a victim. There are two scenes in this film that rank among Williams’ best acting moments in his whole career—when he finds his dead son, and when he starts laughing and crying on a TV talk show.

Under any other director, Williams would have played this far wackier, but there are no funny voices, no manic contortions of the body. Goldthwait achieves the exact right tone throughout the film, and it sways back and forth between horrifying drama and dark comedy, keeping us acutely aware of the satirical crosshairs while also letting us feel for the characters. It never gets so dark that we hate all of the characters, but it never lets them off the hook. Claire, the girlfriend, played by Alexie Gilmore, is a perfect balance of this—she shamelessly chases whichever teacher is “hottest” at the moment, but we also see her warmth and the positive effect that she has on Lance when she’s around. There is also Andrew, Kyle’s best friend, played by Evan Martin, who could have been the prototypical “I’m going to expose you” character in a film such as this, but we never get that sense. Instead, we feel that he’s simply upset with Lance for misrepresenting his friend, even though the currently public image of the friend is an improvement upon reality.

Andrew is the moral compass of a film that spits in the eye of morality, yet the film’s ending takes a conventional indie movie turn that disappoints in relation to the rest of the film’s success. Perhaps it’s because the expectation the film created was of an ending similar to Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors—if the objectionable act creates a better life for an overwhelming majority, and you can get away with it, then keep it up. I will not reveal how it ends, but it doesn’t end with the sharpest satirical ending it could have provided, with all of Williams’ dreams coming true and the son being deified forever. Instead, Goldthwait tries to pull off a much trickier ending—a montage that points out that although not all of his dreams came true, somehow the ending he does achieve is better than the other. It’s easy to imagine where Goldthwait was coming from, but it reads as false. The rest of the movie hit the target so mercilessly, it’s sad to think the final shot sailed wide left. Still, with the first ninety minutes of brutal laughs and drama it contains, the establishment of Bobcat Goldthwait as a satirical voice to look for in the future, and the best Robin Williams performance this side of his Oscar, World’s Greatest might not be World’s Greatest, but it’s pretty damn great.

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~ by russellhainline on September 18, 2009.

One Response to “World’s Greatest Dad: Death, Lies, and Perversion… With Heart and Laughs”

  1. […] Man 8. George Clooney- Up In The Air 7. Hugh Dancy- Adam 6. Sam Rockwell- Moon 5. Robin Williams- World’s Greatest Dad 4. Nicolas Cage- Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans 3. Sharlito Copley- District 9 2. Jeff […]

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