World's Greatest Dad (United States, 2009)

September 04, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
World's Greatest Dad Poster

Death was once considered the great equalizer. These days, it's the best way to reconstruct a damaged reputation. Lionizing the dead isn't just a cottage industry; it's universal. The sins of the living are washed away in death, leaving behind a pristine corpse free of taint. The sullen are said to have been cheerful, the mute are labeled as gregarious, and the misanthropes are reported as bastions of charity and goodwill. With World's Greatest Dad, Bobcat Goldthwait takes this trend and skewers it in one of the least compromising black comedies of the year. The movie isn't perfect - it suffers from an uneven tone in the first half-hour, but it claims the one key ingredient a satire of this nature must possess: fearlessness.

Kyle Clayton (Daryl Sabara) is an asshole. He's the kind of jerk who's so vile that even his meek school teacher father, Lance (Robin Williams), calls him a "douche bag." If there was such a thing as a poster child for abortion, Kyle would be it. He is loathed by his schoolmates, despised by his teachers, and causes his father endless distress. Then, one day, Kyle falls victim to autoerotic asphyxiation. Lance finds the body and decides to do what he can to salvage his son's reputation and give him some dignity in death. He re-arranges the corpse to make it look like a suicide and types a note. But something unexpected happens. The note is leaked to the school newspaper and, when it is printed, Kyle is suddenly a hero. Lance, as the grieving father, is able to bask in his dead son's reflected glory. He writes a journal that he passes off as Kyle's, he appears on a TV talk show, and the school's resident TILF, Claire (Alexie Gilmore), pursues him with a vengeance. Does Lance feel guilty profiting from his son's death? Not really. His life is better in every way without Kyle than it was with him.

It has often been said that low-key roles bring out the best in Robin Williams and that's the case here. This is not a completely serious part, although there are scenes of substantive drama (such as when Lance discovers Kyle's body), but the comedy is not over-the-top. Williams must remain under control. The result is a credible performance of a man who is caught up in a snowballing series of events. One false note from Williams could have brought the film crashing down in an avalanche of artifice, but it's not there. There's complexity in this character and in his circumstances. Do we damn him for profiting from his son's death? Do we sympathize with him for having become trapped as a result of trying to give Kyle a last moment of dignity? Goldthwaite has given us a dark comedy, but there are serious issues here as well. The ambiguity we feel toward Lance is a prime reason World's Greatest Dad succeeds. Any twinges of discomfort come with the territory.

One of the things I found the most honest and on-target about the movie is the way in which it deals with the subjects of writers and writing, including the despair of getting rejection notice after rejection notice while a colleague scores big on his first try. Goldthwaite's script has the honesty of someone speaking with the voice of experience. World's Greatest Dad isn't like Wonder Boys or Bright Star. It's not concerned about the literary process. But it addresses how an author copes with the difficulty of pursuing a passion when the devotion is unrewarded. And how galling for Lance that when his writing receives attention, it's a suicide note written under his son's name?

Releasing a "Robin Williams film" on Labor Day weekend into art house theaters (rather than multiplexes) says a lot about the difficulty of selling World's Greatest Dad. Admittedly, the first 30 minutes are not promising. The film veers between maudlin drama and middlebrow comedy before finding its footing when Kyle dies. Unfortunately, viewers have becomes so accustomed to cookie-cutter comedies that something like this may have difficulty attracting an audience. Expectations that Williams will be wild and crazy do not help. For those who like movies that aren't afraid to generate laughs in the face of difficult subjects, there's much to appreciate about World's Greatest Dad. The movie recognizes the hypocrisy of indiscriminately praising the dead, and employs farce and parody to score a few telling points.

World's Greatest Dad (United States, 2009)

Director: Bobcat Goldthwait
Cast: Robin Williams, Alexie Gilmore, Daryl Sabara, Evan Martin, Geoffrey Pierson, Henry Simmons, Tony V.
Screenplay: Bobcat Goldthwait
Cinematography: Gerald Brunskill
Music: Horacio Marquinez
U.S. Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Run Time: 1:39
U.S. Release Date: 2009-09-04
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1