World's Greatest Dad

Robin Williams in World's Greatest Dad

While I tend to shoot for more in-depth reviews and analytical essays here, I would like to take a moment before we dive in to indulge in the oft-reviled, but more often practiced, art of quote baiting. If you aren’t familiar with the practice, just read any review by Peter Travers or Ben Lyons for just a bevy of “electric”s, “dazzling”s, or any other word or phrase that would look great on a movie poster with an exclamation point next to it. The excitement I feel after watching Bobcat Goldthwait’s searing (that’s one), wickedly funny (that’s two), pitch-black comedy (three) transcends such buzzwords, but I still can’t help but dole out superlatives, like “hands down, the funniest film of the year” (–Adam Smith, MYYEARSINLISTS.COM).

So, for anyone just concerned with the question “Would you recommend it?”, I hope that paragraph makes my emphatic “yes, yes, a million times yes” perfectly clear. Without spoiling anything, what makes Goldthwait such a fascinating storyteller is that he never uses shock for shock’s sake, but always as a gateway to exploring societal questions and moral gray areas; this darkly funny and probing M.O. is also explored in his previous, and less accomplished, feature Sleeping Dogs Lie. With my final warning, I’m about to dive into major spoiler territory, so if you want to experience World’s Greatest Dad from completely fresh eyes, I wouldn’t recommend reading any further.

World’s Greatest Dad joins this year’s best like Fantastic Mr. Fox and Two Lovers as one of the great films about what it means to be a man. And at the heart of all three stories is a struggle of masculine identity, identifying as Jewish, identifying as a wild animal, identifying as a father and a writer. World’s Greatest Dad shows an unflinching but fair look at the male psyche (even while it leaves it battered and bloody), showing their capacity for petty territorial pissings (a rival of the lead character, upon hearing a musing on the absurdity of life, declares “That reminds me so much of my Hunter,” his two-year old son) and deep, unwavering love. The linchpin of Goldthwait’s film is both a horrifying sight and an act of mercy: after returning home from a date, Lance Clayton (Robin Williams, proving that he can pull off brilliant, affecting work without hiding inside One Hour Photo-style creeps) discovers his son Kyle (Daryl Sabara, who, in his brief screen time, throws himself into idiocy and self-absorption with fearless abandon) dead from a botched exercise in autoerotic asphyxiation. After a grueling silent shot of Lance openly weeping and howling at his son’s death, he calmly lays his son out on his bed, zips up the fly on Kyle’s signature cargo pants, and rigs the boy up in his closet, making it look like a suicide. As an extra measure to save his son (and himself) the shame and embarrassment, Lance writes Kyle’s “suicide note.” After seeing what a wholly unlikable and irredeemable prick Kyle is, the act is one of unspeakable love; Lance says it best in the film’s climactic moment, “You didn’t like Kyle. Neither did I. But I loved him. He was my son.” And that ache resonates throughout the film; the pathos of Lance seeing dirty shoe prints Kyle left on the dashboard as the last tangible thing he left behind; the deep regret of having to live with the fact that the last thing he said to his son was “Kyle, you ruin everything, will you shut the fuck up?”; having to walk through the hallway at the high school where he teaches, where he normally could walk by and barely be noticed, and now attracting dehumanizing stares, as if he’s from another planet.

And yet Kyle is still a wholly unlikable and irredeemable prick. And yet, when Kyle’s forged suicide note goes public, suddenly everyone in the high school that ignored him shapes him in their own image, filling him with newfound depth and wisdom that the real Kyle would have labeled “queer.” It’s a plot device that’s not unfamiliar to fans of the brilliant MTV animated series Daria (the episode entitled “The Misery Chick” has a similar central conceit), but while Goldthwait borrows some of that show’s cynicism (shallow people experiencing false epiphanies in the wake of Kyle’s death), he takes it a step further by showing us people whose lives are genuinely changed by Kyle’s death, like a closeted football player who found the courage to come out and the strength to not kill himself after reading the published suicide note. It tackles a question that became timely with the publication of  and subsequent controversy surrounding James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces — if a work truly touches people, how much does it matter if it is, essentially, a lie or in some part fabricated? Does the lie outweigh the potential benefit?

Luckily for Lance (and especially for us; his confession is arguably the funniest scene in a film already filled with moments that make you laugh until you’re short of breath), he decides that the answer is “no.” After sacrificing his own identity to make it Kyle’s (raising the important question of how much a man must be willing to give up of himself to make a better life for his children), Lance is unburdened; the truth has indeed set him free, even if that means everyone will hate him. Lance’s sprint through the hallways of the high school, disrobing, and diving into the swimming pool set to “Under Pressure” is the very definition of catharsis. Though the film really ought to end here, rather than tacking on a small additional scene, it is but a small concern compared to the big ideas hidden in the film’s laughs.

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