World's Greatest Dad

Williams' performance is his best in almost a decade.

World’s Greatest Dad is the type of film that critics hate writing about, and rightly so, for so little can be said of its composition without ruining the jet-black twists contained therein, such that it doesn’t leave much room for an informed analysis. Needless to say, Bobcat Goldthwaite, who many will vaguely remember as the oddly-voiced Zed in the Police Academy films, has crafted one of the most daring comedies in years here, courting controversy in step with a heartfelt story more consistently than he managed in his other shockers, Shakes the Clown and Sleeping Dogs. Given the material this time, it is totally unsurprising that the film has grossed a mere $200,000 in the U.S. (where it was released a year ago), recouping a mere 2% of its budget.

High school English teacher Lance Clayton (Robin Williams) is a single father, living with his abusive jackass of a son, Kyle (Daryl Sabara), who disrespects him at seemingly every errant opportunity, and makes his already mediocre life a lot less bearable. There is a silver lining, though, in Claire (Alexie Gilmore), Lance’s casual girlfriend, who is also a teacher at the school and keeps him going. However, after a blinding twist of fate in Lance’s life – one which, though spoiled by many inconsiderate critics, will simply not be mentioned here – he is forced to confront a crushing moral dilemma, one which may earn him the fame he has always wanted as a writer, but at what cost?

While World’s Greatest Dad is a frequently shocking film, it virtually defines the difference between shocking and shocking for shock’s sake. Goldthwaite’s narrative, though intended to offend and repulse the middle-minded, is at its centre a very touching story about pointless loss, missed opportunities, and the sycophantic nature of the emotionally bereft in the wake of tragedy. The film’s resistance to gloss – for these films are typically only recognisable with an Oscar-approved sheen – is refreshing and admirable, for Goldthwaite spares his characters no indignity, and the film is funnier and more touching for it.

The crux on which the film’s success lies is Williams, whose knock-out performance – no doubt his best since 2002’s One Hour Photo – should have earned him Oscar whispers when the film was released in the U.S. last year. To younger audiences, this will likely be their first glimpse of Williams in such an unapologetically crude role, and given his endless torrent of kid-friendly fare recently (culminating in the dire Old Dogs), this feels like a comeback for a talent who, on the basis of this role, was simply waiting for the right script to abound. Also superb is Sabara as his son, initiating a hilariously acerbic to-and-fro of sarcastic put-downs with Williams that is ultimately integral to the film’s dramatic integrity and emotional resonance.

As a comment on the state of our society, in which grief is itself a commodity exploited so often – perhaps no more than in the art of cinema – Goldthwaite cuts through any notion of false sentiment with his scathingly blunt critique of phony people milking phony emotions for their own dubious means of gratification. For that reason, casual audiences are likely to find the film’s satire too aggressive, yet viewers jaded by the repetitious nature of bad things happening to good people will find plenty to marvel at; in World’s Greatest Dad, bad things happen to assholes, and pretty much everyone in this film fits that one-word description perfectly.

How the film still hits an emotional high, however, is thanks to both Williams’ excellent performance and a gut-busting corker of a climax, which sees the meticulously constructed house of cards fall to pieces rather spectacularly, and in the process allows the characters plenty of opportunity for spiritual and ethical rebirth. One almost dares to call the ending sweet, but we don’t think Goldthwaite would like that very much…

Rest assured, World’s Greatest Dad is going to struggle to ever find much of an audience. Its themes – depicting sexual deviance, awkward death, and leech-like emotional saplings – will likely repel many more people than it will ever attract, but it sees Williams on top form and suggests that Bobcat Goldthwaite just might be the next Todd Solondz in the waiting. Whether you saw it in 2009 or 2010, this is one of the funniest and most divertingly original comedies in years.


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