After reading my recent column in which I listed ten of what I regarded as particularly underrated or neglected films of the late lamented Robin Williams, a friend of mine got in touch to say that I had missed one: World’s Greatest Dad, written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait.
Longtime fan of both Williams and Goldthwait though I am, I had to admit that I’d never heard of it. So my friend sat me down at his house the Friday evening after Williams died, and ran it for me.
He was right. This very dark comedy, (barely) released in 2009, was a significant omission, a striking movie in its own right, and loaded with troubling resonances in light of the star’s sad passing. The title has the ring of Disney-style pablum, but that’s hardcore irony.
Williams plays Lance, a high school teacher and prolific but frustratingly unpublished writer. His teenage son Kyle (Daryl Sabara) is an intolerable jerk—a selfish, mean-spirited, ignorant, disrespectful pervert who either rebuffs or exploits every single one of his dad’s attempts to bond with him. Nonetheless, when Lance finds the boy dead from an embarrassing accident, the result is one of the most heartbreaking minutes of acting Williams ever gave onscreen—and, of course, it has an additional level of sadness in light of its parallels to what the actor’s own family must have gone through.
Lance alters the scene of Kyle’s death to make it look like a suicide, and writes a fake note and diary for him that, when made public, turn the cretin, near-friendless in real life, into a posthumous hero among his schoolmates. It also turns Lance, for the first time, into a successful published writer, albeit anonymously, and he’s soon at the center of a Million Little Pieces-style hoax, though only Andrew (Evan Martin), Kyle’s shrewd sole friend, suspects anything.
Even without its retroactive tragic overtones, World’s Greatest Dad takes a satiric pitilessness towards its title character that makes it painful to watch. Goldthwait is to be credited for humiliating his protagonist so ferociously, though he’s also smart enough to give us some relief—he allows Lance a cute if obnoxious girlfriend (Alexie Gilmore) and a few other consolations.
Goldthwait also deserves credit for the general sharpness of his dialogue and structure. Funny though parts of his 1991 cult item Shakes the Clown—in which Williams had a cameo—undeniably were, World’s Greatest Dad represents an impressive advance.
Both as a performer and a writer, Goldthwait has always seemed to have zany outrageousness as his object—I interviewed him once, and he told me about a screenplay he’d written called Teen Jesus (somehow he’d never gotten a major studio to commit to that one)—but World’s Greatest Dad suggests a mature and reflective sensibility. Kyle’s apotheosis is a bit fuzzily dramatized, perhaps, but the characterization of Kyle is a small, appalling masterpiece: Goldthwait and Sabara (who played one of the title characters in the Spy Kids movies) collaborated on a devastating portrait of a parent’s worst nightmare, shy of actual criminality (for which Kyle would probably lack the initiative).
But the speeches Goldthwait gives Lance are his real triumph, strikingly plaintive and epigrammatic, and Williams responded to them with one of the best, most restrained—and, in its way, funniest—performances of his later career. The movie’s depiction of familial grief over a preventable loss does deepen the anger—however unfair it may be—at the fatal choice Williams made. If it was a choice.