Director: Bobcat Goldthwait
Starring: Robin Williams, Daryl Sabara, Alexie Gilmore, Evan Martin, Henry Simmons
Running Time: 99 min.
★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
"I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It's not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone."
Every once in a while an unknown movie comes out of left field and leaves me so dumbfounded that all I can do is just throw my hands in the air and ask, "How can someone write something so smart?" It's rare for such a movie to be a comedy, but even rarer for it to star Robin Williams, whose been frustrating audiences for years with his awful choices in roles. World's Greatest Dad is a reminder of how gifted an actor he is when handed intelligent material that doesn't necessitate him having to try so hard. If I were to judge this movie based solely on the level of difficulty in executing story and juggling different tones it would stand as the best of 2009. What it pulls off is nothing short of a miracle given the challenging and polarizing material it's taking on. It's the riskiest American comedy in years and the only recent one comparable to it in terms of ambition is Observe and Report, but I'd argue this even takes things a step further.
Calling the film "timely" is an understatement. It literally has its finger directly on the pulse of interpersonal issues facing society and how we view mortality. And it has the guts to say that when someone dies often no one REALLY cares. Or at least not in the way we should. Instead, we tend to mythologize the dead and try to fit that person's passing neatly into our own little emotional box so that we can feel better about ourselves. That's a brave stand for any picture to take, much less a comedy, and it's no wonder one this subversive wasn't able to connect with the mainstream. That's a shame because every aspect of this dark satire is pitch-perfect, never stumbling on its way to a knockout finale and taking place in a universe filled with supporting characters so fully realized in writing and performance that each could carry their own film. I didn't want the movie or my time with any of them to come to an end, and this despite the fact they're all liars or fakes. It's shocking, inspirational, vulgar, touching, sad and hilarious. But even more surprisingly, it's all written and directed by Zed from the Police Academy movies a.k.a. crazed comedian Bobcat Goldthwait.
Lance Clayton (Robin Williams) is a single father and failed novelist teaching unpopular poetry classes at the high school where his bratty, perverted teenage son, Kyle (Spy Kids' Daryl Sabara all grown up) attends. His relationship with pretty art teacher Claire (Alexie Gilmore) seems to be going nowhere since she refuses to get serious with him or even publicly acknowledge they're dating. Even worse, she seems to only have eyes for her "friend" Mike (Henry Simmons), the charismatic creative writing teacher taking all of Lance's students. Just as Kyle's behavioral problems at school and at home further escalate, tragedy strikes when he dies in a freak masturbating accident. It's a credit to the film that when Kyle's self-inflicted death (the silliest kind imaginable) occurs it really does seem genuinely tragic, resulting in an emotionally poignant scene carried by Williams.
I'll have to tread carefully in explaining what happens next as to not spoil the pivotal turn the story takes and the film's many surprises. Let's just say it involves Lance concocting a major ruse to cover up the embarrassing circumstances surrounding his son's death that results in new found popularity and respect for him, as well as the posthumous, mythological rise of his son into a cult hero in the school community. It helps that we're given a lot of time (nearly 40 minutes) to get to know the anti-social Kyle through his strained relationship with his dad and that the script doesn't shy away from showing us just how ugly and repulsive his behavior is. But this isn't an exaggeration for shock value. Rather, it's a no holds barred depiction of how a troubled teenager would actually act that could prove uncomfortable for many watching because it's the truth. And it's such a credit to Daryl Sabara's raw, real performance that long after his character has expired we're left wondering what he would think and say about everyone's reaction to his passing and his dad's actions. No doubt it would include a myriad of profanities. That underlying curiosity never left me right up until the gutsy stand the film takes in its final act.
It's difficult to watch this without thinking of the similarities to the public reaction surrounding Michael Jackson's recent death. As awful as it is to admit, dying was the best possible image rehabilitation he could have had. Only a week before his passing he wasn't primarily known as the "King of Pop," but rather "Wacko Jacko," an alleged child molester more famous for his disastrous plastic surgeries and reclusive behavior than any of his contributions to the music world. It was only in death that he was able to receive the ultimate acquittal and given the comeback he could never have if he were still living. An even more accurate example would be Kurt Cobain, who in death achieved an immortality and inflated perception of his accomplishments that for many greatly overshadowed any potential shortcomings in his character or personal demons he battled. Nirvana's legendary reputation (deserved or not) owes a great deal Cobain's premature death. It's not a coincidence that Nirvana's Krist Novolselic briefly cameos in this film, as the ideas brought up in it had to have struck a nerve.
Often, instead of trying to recognize the good in people while they're alive we instead try to make up for it by distorting their legacy after they've died. This is exactly what happens with Kyle in this movie.As big a jerk as he was, Kyle wasn't going through anything necessarily more monumental than any other deeply troubled teen and did deserve better than being remembered as someone he wasn't. It's in the school's response to his passing and their sudden whole hearted support of Lance where the film becomes a scathing high school satire comparable to Heathers or Election. It's fitting this is "A DARKO PRODUCTION" since the themes the teen apathy and adult hypocrisy that ran rampant through Donnie Darko are also very much present here. The actions Lance takes following Kyle's death (which will go unrevealed by me) starts as a noble attempt to spare his son embarrassment, but quickly cross the line into something else that becomes more important and reveal some ugly truths about human nature.
Anchoring all of this is is an unusually restrained Williams, turning in his most nuanced performance since his dip into the dark side in 2003 with Insomnia and One Hour Photo. He really tends to overdo it when asked to play broad comedy (i.e. Flubber, Patch Adams, License to Wed, Old Dogs) and the material drags him down, but when handed a meaty role with real dramatic purpose, few are better. This is exactly the kind of part I've been keeping my fingers crossed that Williams would eventually take again and he balances what's required of him perfectly. As deftly skilled as he is at handling the lighter, more comedic moments in the screenplay he's just as believable as a grieving dad forced to make a desperate decision.
There's a difficult scene on a talk show where Williams has to run a gamut of emotions (and we're not even sure exactly which) that may as well just be sent to every voting Academy member. We've all wanted to root him on as an actor for the longest time, but he just makes it so difficult by always signing on to material that's so far beneath his talent level. Now he finally has a performance that deserves to be mentioned alongside his best work.Aiding Williams is a supporting cast that's actually a true SUPPORTING cast, helping to hold the film together and enrich each scene. Unlike other lesser comedies, this feels like a real ensemble with Goldthwait's brilliant script investing every character with depth and enabling each performer to make important contributions regardless of screen time.
Alexie Gilmore's Claire is about as far away from your typical throwaway movie love interest as it gets, playing a monumentally important role in the plot and appearing in nearly every scene. It's unfair to even refer to her as a "love interest" or "girlfriend" because we're never quite sure if that's what she is at all. Does she even care about Lance? What did she see in him to begin with? Is she just stringing him along? Is she cheating? Is she really as awesome as she appears or just a superficial bitch? Any other movie would serve these answers up for us on a silver platter, but here the audience is trusted to come up with the answers themselves and Gilmore works to retain that sense of mystery. A bundle of energy, Claire's in nearly every scene with Gilmore having considerable lifting to do as an actress to keep the tone light when the story veers in darker directions. She's most of the reason why this is a comedy, infusing her character with an intelligence, wit and sophistication we're not used to seeing in a female supporting role like this. Not to mention she shares great chemistry with Williams, Sabara and everyone else in the cast. Even when we think we have Claire all figured out at the end, we still can't be completely sure.
The character of Mike, Lance's opponent for Claire's affections, is treated with similar intelligence. He's liked by everyone, but for good reason because he's actually a pretty cool guy and not the stereotypical jerk you'd find in most a mainstream comedies fighting for the girl. Like Claire, we're left second guessing whether he's just that cool or a player. Henry Simmons (who reminded me of Dwayne Johnson) cleverly plays him like he doesn't know either. His facial reactions to Lance's change in fortune in the second half of the picture are classic. Even the principal (Geoffrey Pierson) isn't depicted as an arrogant blowhard but as somewhat reasonable and understanding to Lance's situation. Every single person, right down to the grief counselor and a kooky neighbor, are given a human dimension to them that adds to the story and makes you want to learn more about them.
Ironically the smartest written character just might be Kyle's only friend, Andrew (Evan Martin) who was treated like dirt by him while he was alive. He seems to be the only person with a firm grasp on reality in a community full of posers. The brilliance of the script is how you're essentially forced to choose between two evils: Lance's lie and his "friends'" completely disingenuous support that results from it. If it's hard to watch the film without thinking of Michael Jackson or Kurt Cobain it becomes nearly impossible to see it without also considering David Carradine, who died under the same embarrassing circumstances Kyle did. And when I heard that news I remember thinking how I was given one more piece of information than I wanted and it would now undoubtedly affect my perception of this brilliant actor. Would we have been better off being lied to? There are no easy answers but this film dares to answer them, or more accurately, lets us attempt to. The ending isn't brave because of what happens but HOW and where the blame is assigned. In death Lance becomes closer to his son than he ever could while he was alive. Bonus points for a perfect pop soundtrack (as well as a hilariously memorable musician cameo) and a score from Gerald Brunskill that feels like a character in the film.
While going largely unseen and unfamiliar to many, the movie has received relatively strong critical support but even those praising it don't seem fully aware of how many different ways it could have gone wrong and the touch necessary to make it work. Goldthwait takes a premise of a kid who kills himself masturbating and not only turns it into a hilarious laugh-out loud comedy, but a scathing, subversive parable about our society and how we treat each other in life and in death. This feels more like an adaptation of a great novel than an original screenplay. It's tough to believe this hasn't attracted the attention it deserves, despite the controversial subject matter. Maybe it was the film's title. Or the presence of Robin Williams. More likely it's just that no one heard about it and those who have don't like their drama and comedy mixed to this extent. Whatever preconceptions there are should be checked at the door because World's Greatest Dad is a satire no one should miss.