If you told me a film directed by Bobcat Golthwait and starring Robin Williams about a father whose son dies from autoerotic asphyxiation would be subtle and actually kind of sweet, I know for a fact I wouldn't have believed you. And yet, we find ourselves with World's Greatest Dad . For as dark and periodically disgusting as it can be, Gothwait and Williams show enormous restraint (!) in this film as they disembowel humanity's need to idolize the dead and insert themselves into other people's grief.
Williams plays Lance Clayton, a floundering high school poetry teacher whose literary aspirations have led to little but stacks upon stacks of rejection letters. He is divorced, and his relationship with a cute-as-a-button fellow teacher seems doomed when a far more handsome, far more published English teacher starts working at the school. Kyle, his 15 year old son, is a greasy, hyper-sexual sociopath with little interest in anything beyond aggressively leering at female students and getting the maximum resolution possible for his Internet pornography.
Kyle also has a thing for choking himself while masturbating, and as you might expect, this eventually leads to a sort of tragedy when he accidentally goes too far. Lance, in a fit of desperate humiliation, pens a suicide note for his misanthropic son, and paints him in an idealized light, projecting everything he wishes his son could have been. When the note finds itself in the hands of the student body and faculty, people begin to show an unnerving amount of support for Lance, effectively attaching themselves to his supposed grief. Kids start to remember things about Kyle that never happened, start to obsess about him, and the more opportunistic of the bunch seize on the chance to be a part of the phenomenon that is Kyle's “suicide.”
If this all sounds black as hell, it is. The sheer fakery on display by those around Lance snowballs to the point of being reprehensible, and yet Golthwait shows a shockingly deft touch in handling it all. His script never puts anyone or any situation too far over the top. Sure, some of Lance's hangers-on are gross caricatures of human beings, but Golthwait avoids ever transporting this too far out of the realm of believability, and the third act, ripe with potential for crazed antics and horrible miscues, stays very much on track toward a surprisingly thoughtful conclusion—one that feels right, at that. For his part, Williams keeps himself very much in check, avoiding his trademark histrionics and instead plays Lance as the sort of guy who smiles all the time because he's so unbelievably sad. He gets his moments of foulness and measured mania, but they're dwarfed by the good-natured despondency that permeates the bulk of his performance.
The real standout though is Kyle, played by Daryl Sabara, who you might remember as one of the annoying brats from those Spy Kids movies. Sabara is unreal as this nihilistic, over-sexed kid. With his endless sweating and glazed-over facial expressions, he perfectly recreates the creepy pervert guy we all went to high school with that would get beaten up just for making everyone feel wildly uncomfortable. Some of the shit that comes out of his mouth floored me, and he does it with this amazing deadpan delivery that is just straight up unsettling.
World's Greatest Dad doesn't treat death lightly. Lance's heartache is very real, even if Kyle's death does seem more a blessing than a curse. What it does poke fun at is the bizarre drive people have to treat death as this big uniting force, and grieve for those they don't even know simply because it gives them something to grasp onto. Sometimes people are miserable scumbags and their death offers little beyond a respite from the sheer inconvenience of their existence. Golthwait knows this, and finds a way to turn this blunt, unfriendly message into a genuinely funny little movie. If you like your comedy black as the hole you'll one day be buried in, seek this one out.
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