I ordinarily go out of my way to avoid films that star Robin Williams, but when there’s a second directorial effort by Bob Goldwait, I don’t care if it stars Paris Hilton and Miley Cyrus (actually, that might be brutally funny). The last time I saw a film he directed was 1991’s Shakes the Clown, which certainly has its detractors, but is one of my very favorite comedies. His brand of humor (if we forget his turn in the miserable Police Academy movies) veers sharply into the dark and me; he never for a second pretends like it’s going to be nice. Those were certainly my expectations going into World’s Greatest Dad, but it’s shocking to find those expectations not only met, but resoundingly exceeded. Is that a good thing? Is it funny? Depends on whom you ask.
Williams plays Lance Clayton, a failing writer and failing father. He has written four novels with no takers, and has resolved to quit writing if he can’t get his fifth published. His son, Kyle (Daryl Sabara), is about the biggest scumbag kid you’ll ever have the displeasure to meet. Because he’s such a little dickhead, everybody at school treats him badly, which causes him to act worse, and it becomes a never-ending escalation of shitty behavior. Lance is the poetry teacher at Kyle’s’ high school, but all of it goes over his head. His self-absorbedness makes him blind to everything except the fact that none of the kids give a damn about his poetry class and his belief that his girlfriend is cheating on him with the physics teacher, which he thinks he sees all too clearly, though he shudders to admit it to himself.
Just as he starts to think that things have started to turn around, he comes home from a date to find Kyle dead--autoerotic asphyxiation (naturally). In spite of his grief, a light comes on in his head. He cleans Kyle up, dresses him, hangs him in the closet, and types out an overly eloquent suicide note. After the initial shock of his death, the school publishes the note and, all of a sudden, everybody was his best friend. He becomes a martyr in the minds of the students and, now, Lance can rewrite Kyle’s life…literally.
Especially when they die young, people have a tendency to lionize the dead (see Kurt Cobain or Pat Tillman). The real story never matters as much as the narrative, and Goldwait skewers this attitude brilliantly. People begin to clamor for more details of Kyle’s life, so Lance starts to release pieces of “Kyle’s” journal and, eventually, publishes it as a book. He’s able to turn Kyle not only into a misunderstood genius, but also into everything Lance. Among other things, he makes Kyle’s favorite musician is Lance’s: Bruce Hornsby, a beautiful running gag that culminates in an appearance from the artist and a live solo performance of “Mandolin Rain.” As confusing as some of the details are to the students, they accept them without question. Lance makes himself relevant through his son and his life feels like it has meaning, even though it’s all shallow and based on lies.
Over the years, Goldwait has been something of a Comedy Central darling, directing episodes of Crank Yankers, The Man Show, Chappelle’s Show, and currently Important Things with Demetri Martin. Though this experience, the comedian has clearly developed his chops. Improvement is readily apparent in every aspect of the filmmaking, from the performances to the pacing to the camerawork. Where Shakes was this weird anomaly and technically deficient despite its charms, World’s Greatest Dad moves well and makes sense from start to finish. The screenplay, which he also wrote, is full of great quotes and surprisingly realistic dialog. The film flows really well, providing some very dry laughs up until the suicide (a gut-wrenching scene of emotional cruelty), and then moving into some truly brutal territory. At this point, the comic foils change from Lance, Kyle, and their poor relationship to the world at large. As a two-act story, the switch makes a lot of sense. All the conflict lies within Lance, and the people at large follow along because, as against logic as all of it is, they choose to believe what he tells them about Kyle; they decide not to question his stories. Robin Williams does really well in his role, better than I could have expected, which may have more to do with the fact that I can more easily swallow an actor I don’t like playing a hateable character more than anything special he did.
In the end, World’s Greatest Dad is a good comedy, if not a great one. On the strength of the writing, there is plenty of repeat value, but Goldwait is not Fritz Lang, and for as much improvement as he displays, there are some limitations in the film. Mainly, we have the issue of a complete lack of likeable characters. In Heathers, the king of modern black comedy, at least we know that Veronica Sawyer is an inherently good person and, for all that goes on, easily redeemable. There are no secrets for us about Lance Clayton. When he says, “You guys didn’t like Kyle. That’s okay. I didn’t either. I loved him. He was my son, but he was also a douchebag.” we know that the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree, and that’s a problem. It would have been fine if we thought he was decent and Goldwait pulled the rug out from under us, but Lance goes from totally pathetic to an utter asshole, so we still have the question of why we’d want to watch these characters torture each other. To my taste, the film is extremely smart and funny, if not nice, and that’s enough for me. Your mileage may vary; it will solely depend on your tolerance for assholes being assholes to other assholes. It’s well worth watching, though; Bob Goldwait is a unique voice in comedy and his films are almost singular in their dark hilarity.