World's Greatest Dad | Film reviews, news & interviews
World's Greatest Dad
Robin Williams returns to form in a scabrous comedy about the grief industry
The words “starring Robin Williams” hardly inspire film-goers with confidence these days. After a career that includes the dramatic highlights of Good Morning Vietnam, The Fisher King and Dead Poets Society, and the amenable comedy of Mrs Doubtfire, he has more recently made a slew of films over which it would be kind to draw a veil. But he’s back on terrific form in World’s Greatest Dad, one of the most original and funny comedies released this year.
Williams plays Lance Clayton, who has a failed marriage behind him and is a failed writer - his rejected novels include the titles The Narcissus Life Vest and Door-to-Door Android. Dressed in sloppy cardigans and ankle-swingers, he looks like a loser and teaches an elective poetry course at the local high school, whose few attendees either cannot write or who routinely plagiarise pop songs for their work, and are there only because they need course credits to graduate.
His 15-year-old son, Kyle, attends the same school and is utterly detestable - a rude, lazy, foul-mouthed, cynical, bullying jerk (in every sense) who is addicted to hardcore internet porn. Everybody and everything in his life is dismissed with the pejorative label of “gay”, and not even music interests him. “The only thing gayer than music is people who listen to it,” he screams at his father when Lance tries to play the car radio as they drive to school together.
About 40 minutes into World’s Greatest Dad, Kyle dies in an accident (don’t worry, I’m not giving away the plot) and, just when you think the film is going to turn into a predictable, schmaltzy tearfest, writer and director Bobcat Goldthwait takes the film into a wholly unexpected and darkly funny direction. For reasons that will become both comically and movingly apparent, Lance fakes a suicide note, which finds its way onto the internet and suddenly everyone who hated Kyle (pretty much everybody who knew him) is claiming a connection to him.
As happened with Princess Diana, there is soon - as the people being targeted by Goldthwait’s mordant humour might say - a tsunami of grief at the school for someone they hardly knew, still less cared about when he was alive. Kyle keepsakes are begged of Lance, girls put pictures of the teenager in their lockets and boys start wearing “What Would Kyle Do?” T-shirts. Lance then fakes Kyle’s diary, over which a publishing bidding war breaks out, and then appears as a grieving father on an Oprah Winfrey-like television chatshow to talk about how “Kyle’s” journals have helped his friends through the grieving process and may have prevented other teen suicides.
Daryl Sabara gives an astonishing performance as Kyle and manages to portray both his character’s vileness and an aching vulnerability. The scene in the headmaster’s office where he is told he may have to go into a remedial group is a short masterclass of acting as Sabara’s face registers several conflicting emotions wordlessly in the space of a few frames. There’s great support from Evan Martin as Kyle’s only friend, Andrew, and Alexie Gilmore as Lance’s on-off love interest, fellow teacher Claire (although what she sees in Lance is never fully explained), while singer Bruce Hornsby makes a cameo appearance as himself as part of a deliciously amusing running gag.
I must confess that I went into the screening of World’s Greatest Dad with low expectations; while Robin Williams remains one of the world’s most gifted stand-ups, his film choices of late have generally been pants. But he’s back to his dramatic and comic best, giving a beautifully contained performance as a man driven to unsavoury ends by his lust for success in a life filled with failure. And much of the credit for that must be due to comic-turned-film-maker Goldthwait’s skilful direction in a coruscatingly funny attack on the modern grief industry.
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