Sunday, November 18, 2012

Overlooked Gems #46: World's Greatest Dad


Grade: 73 (B+)

Robin Williams is one of the most popular comedians and actors of the past thirty years. He’s also one of the names on my “DO NOT WATCH” list. Oh, sure, there are a few movies he’s starred in over the years that I’ve liked, but more often than not directors don’t know how to channel his intense need to be loved by the audience and just let him riff or overemote (roll call: Dead Poets Society, Mrs. Doubtfire, Patch Adams, Jack). But occasionally a script comes along and uses his overwhelming vulnerability and expressive face to good effect. 2009’s World’s Greatest Dad would rank as one of the exceptions. How do you make a genuinely funny Robin Williams movie? Give it to Bobcat Goldthwait, the guy who made a black-comedy about a woman with a past in bestiality downright heartfelt. That ought to cut through Williams’ maudlin/hyperactive mode.

Lance Clayton (Williams) is a high school English teacher and failed writer. Nothing he’s ever written has been published, his poetry class at school is unpopular, and to top it all off his 15-year-old son Kyle (Daryl Sabara) is a hateful little creep whose only interest is in extreme pornography. Lance is also dating fellow teacher Claire (Alexie Gilmore), who won’t publicly acknowledge their relationship and makes clear advances towards another teacher. One night, Kyle dies of autoerotic asphyxiation, and Lance decides to make it look like suicide and write a heartfelt suicide note about how Kyle felt misunderstood. Soon, Kyle becomes a martyr in his school, Lance receives an overwhelming inflow of sympathy and interested students, and, encouraged by the attention, decides to write a fake journal for Kyle.

Goldthwait and Williams hit a nice balance between pathos and pitch-black comedy early on- they don’t shy away from making Kyle completely unlikable, and Lance comes off as a more sympathetic figure because of it (though his threat to stab his son in the face is pretty funny). But as soon as Kyle becomes a false martyr and an “author”, sympathies shift. Sure, he was a creep, but is it better to remember him falsely as a lost and confused kid or as the douchebag he was? Williams’ casting here is perfect: we can’t approve of what he does, even if it starts with good intentions, but we like him, and it’s hard to not want things to turn out well for him.

Goldthwait doesn’t have much in the way of a personality behind the camera, but his ability as a writer is more than enough. World’s Greatest Dad is at its funniest showing how death ultimately makes a person a vehicle for everyone to project their own feelings onto- Kyle is an inspiration to another misunderstood student, or a breakthrough to a guidance counselor who wants students to talk about their problems, or a fellow sufferer to a goth. World’s Greatest Dad bombed in theatres, making only $295,000 against a $10 million budget. Maybe audiences couldn’t take a film about how death makes people forget how awful the dead could be. Or maybe they just wanted more flailing in their Robin Williams movie. 

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1 comment:

  1. It also didn't help that at it's peak, the movie was only released in just 30 theaters, which actually makes the $295k sound not bad.

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