Robin Williams gives one of his best performances in writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait's dark comedy about a failed novelist whose fantasy of becoming a literary lion comes true in a way that's just plain wrong. Goldthwait, who reached his apotheosis as a stand-up when he set fire to The Tonight Show's furniture, has in recent years become a maker of thoughtful indie movies that take a sick premise and extrapolate from it some uneasy truths. In Sleeping Dogs Lie, the protagonist's honesty got her into trouble. This time out, the main character perpetrates a hoax. It wins him the attention he craves, but will his conscience let him ride the wave?
Interview: Bobcat Goldthwait. By Betsy Sherman.
World’s Greatest Dad | Written and Directed by Bobcat Goldthwait | with Robin Williams, Alexie Gilmore, Daryl Sabara, Evan Martin, Geoff Pierson, Henry Simmons, and Mitzi McCall | Magnolia Pictures | 99 minutes
Williams's Lance Clayton is a single dad and high-school poetry teacher who's been losing students to the handsome new creative-writing instructor (Henry Simmons). Lance's boss (Geoff Pierson) talks down to him, and his 15-year-old son, Kyle (Daryl Sabara), is mortified to have to cross paths with him in the hallways. True, cutie-pie art teacher Claire (Alexie Gilmore) is sleeping with him — but she insists they keep the affair hush-hush.
And Lance long ago lost the tug of wills with his surly, obtuse only child. The morning ride to school is rife with tension: Kyle shoots down his dad's attempts at conversation and stomps on everything Lance holds dear. (There's a running gag about Bruce Hornsby.) At school, on the other hand, Kyle has trouble finding an audience — a flesh-and-blood Cartman, he holds forth on his latest discoveries from Internet porn (he's a virgin, of course) to an audience of one, his meek acolyte Andrew (Evan Martin).
But then Lance finds Kyle in his bedroom lifeless from an auto-erotic asphyxiation session gone awry. Lance rearranges the death scene and forges a suicide note on Kyle's computer. The school community is way too ready to move on from the tragedy; then the moving suicide note becomes public. Lance announces that he can, uh, probably get hold of Kyle's journal — within a few days. He has a truly monstrous bout of creativity. The ghostwritten teen journal is a sensation, causing girls who barely noticed Kyle to claim secret crushes on the "angel in cargo pants."
Williams's performance pushes the film beyond its Heathers-like satire of phony grief gone wild. He gets laughs from his character's slow implosion: even when things go well for Lance, the potential for humiliation is written all over him. After the journal is published, you might almost think he believes that Kyle was "deep." (Andrew knows better.) But then, when he guests on an Oprah-type TV show and is asked to tell his story, he simply loses it. There may not be a precedent in film history for the way Williams makes the absurdity of Lance's journey play out on his face, and in an eerie mixture of whimpering and giggling.
Sabara is terrific as the unrelentingly irritating Kyle; so is Gilmore as the flaky Claire, Martin as Andrew, and veteran comic Mitzi McCall as a reclusive neighbor who becomes Lance's sounding board. They help make World's GreatestDad the necro-feel-good movie of the year.