World's Greatest Dad

(2009) *** R
100 min. Magnolia Pictures. Director: Bobcat Goldthwait. Cast: Robin Williams, Daryl Sabara, Alexie Gilmore, Henry Simmons, Evan Martin.

/content/films/3513/1.jpgWhen you’re doing it right, fiction is telling the truth through a lie. Bobcat Goldthwait examines this idea through the story and practice of his twisted new film, World’s Greatest Dad. ‘80s stand-up star Goldthwait (Shakes the Clown) enlisted his old friend Robin Williams to play high school teacher Lance Clayton. Lance is unmistakably in a rut: sign-ups for his poetry class are dwindling (no Dead Poets Society here), and he’s increasingly frustrated in his second “career” as a novelist with a pile of unpublished manuscripts (with amusing titles like “The Speed of Bad News” and “The Narcissist's Life Vest”) growing by the year. Worse, the whiff of these failures seems to be reaching his pretty co-worker/girlfriend Claire (Alexie Gilmore), whose friendship with a younger, more successful teacher (Henry Simmons) seems a bit too eager.

Lance knows there’s more to him than people are willing to see, a point proved even by his own teenage son, Kyle (Daryl Sabara of the Spy Kids movies), an insecure, perverse, vitriol-spewing jerk who treats his father and best friend (Evan Martin) like dirt. But a traumatic shift in father-son relations has a surprising side effect: by something like an accident, Lance becomes a beloved writer. In tried-and-true “deal with the devil” fashion, Lance’s celebrity comes with a price: the exploitation of his son.

The secret Lance guards powers an amusing, cynical black comedy about our national addiction to tragedy, and our commoditization of grief (Michael Jackson, anyone?). Driven to new lengths by competitive jealousy, Lance chases celebrity, and when he gets it, two things predictably begin to happen: everyone wants a glimmer of his reflected glow, and Lance develops mixed feelings about his success. The schadenfreude of Lance’s public also brings to mind the many lucrative book contracts won by authors selling their own pain, that of others, or tragic fantasies cut from whole cloth.

As writer and director, Goldthwait delights in the wrong, as in a running gag of Lance walking in on his son pleasuring himself. In one such moment, his son claims to be doing homework, to which Lance says, without thinking, “Need a hand?” Though such scenes are bitingly funny, they also invariably lead to laughs that catch in the throat as Lance deals with the dark consequences of each mishap. Goldthwait’s sick bent won’t go over with everyone, but these days it’s rare to see a black comedy, much less a thoughtful one that actually works. Add to that selling point Williams in his subtler mode of comedy, and World’s Greatest Dad is welcome, indeed.

[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]

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