Robin Williams;s career choices have bordered on flailing in recent years, as he has moved from sentimental Chris Columbus junk to somber thrillers to half-hearted broad comedy. Now, it seems to have taken a fellow comedian to sit him down and get him to focus: Bobcat Goldthwait, like Williams, was once known for a wild stand-up act, but has recently embarked upon a thoughtful career in dark, independent comedies.
In World's Greatest Dad, Goldthwait has Williams playing Lance Clayton, a high school English teacher and failed writer caring for his teenaged son Kyle (Daryl Sabara). One senses that the professional failures would be easier for Lance if Kyle was a willing participant in their family life, but the kid -- whose lists of hates include movies and music -- prefers masturbation, computer games, and harassment to anything resembling pleasant human contact. Sabara, the plucky little boy from the Spy Kids trilogy, has half-grown up into a teenager, and plays Kyle with sweaty, convincing hostility. Article continues below
The movie spends ample time, maybe too much, establishing Kyle's bona fides as a lousy human being -- before the boy dies, accidentally, while experimenting with autoerotic asphyxiation. Distraught, Lance makes his son's death look like a suicide, going so far as to ghostwrite an accompanying note. Soon Kyle's formerly disdainful classmates begin to see him as a fallen hero, possessing the hidden depths the movie has clearly shown us he did not possess. And Lance gains cachet with friends, colleagues, and students as he continues to publish under his son's name.
Initially, World's Greatest Dad pokes along without finding a way to reconcile its alternately nasty and melancholy instincts. Goldthwait doesn't have much of an ear for dialogue, particularly when it comes to delivery and pacing -- Williams and Sabara’s exchanges sound labored and slow even for familial dysfunction. Once the school takes a posthumous shine to Kyle, the film does gain a smarter, funnier dimension, illustrating the ways people use tragedy to validate themselves.
Even at its sharpest, though, the movie never really takes off. Each narrative step -- Lance's sense of failure, Kyle's hostility, Lance's exploitation of false memories of his son and his resulting guilt -- repeats itself at least once if not several times. And in case the repetition isn’t enough, Goldthwait uses a generous selection of songs to describe what's happening on screen, often with distressing literalness. It would be nice, too, to see an indie comedy without any well-meaning misfits finding solace in each other -- a trope that feels especially out of place in a movie that seems to have other, better ideas.
Goldthwait does take his comedy seriously, and he treats his characters without caricatured condescension; for all of the bad behavior and attempted satire, this isn't a cynical movie. The director makes especially good use of Williams – compacting the comedian's neediness and his history of dad roles in lame studio comedies into a sad, lost little man. It's a nuanced performance in a movie that has a tendency to repeat its nuances. He and Goldthwait should get together again sometime.