It’s been a long time since Robin Williams has been in top form. Despite popping up in a variety of roles supporting his trademark over-the-top shtick, his humor has been missing the sense of bold physical exploration, that made him such a winning comedian, and the surprising deftness of spirit that made him such a poignant dramatist.
Writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait’s new film, “World’s Greatest Dad,” is darker than dark. It’s a pitch-black comedy that breaks more than a few barriers of taste. It’s also Williams’ best work in years, a tightly wound portrait of artistic depression and emotional manipulation that’s both devastatingly funny and shockingly affecting.
Williams stars as Lance Clayton, a would-be famous novelist wasting away as a high school English teacher. No one wants to take his poetry class, and no publishers want his novels. His son Kyle (Daryl Sabara), may qualify as the world’s worst son, a pitiful and porn-obsessed fifteen-year-old jerk who couldn’t care less about his father.
Then, about 40 minutes into the film, Kyle, humiliatingly and accidentally, dies. Lance, not wanting people to know what really happened, stages the scene as an accidental suicide, complete with an emotionally deep and completely fabricated suicide note.
The note, it turns out, becomes the focus of much attention for its surprising depth. Seeing an opportunity to live vicariously through his son, Lance decides to write his son’s journal and reveal a tortured soul beneath the lonely jerk.
Perhaps one-third social satire and two-thirds misanthropic cynicism, “World’s Greatest Dad” teeters on the slippery slope of dark comedy, occasionally hitting a stride that sticks so hard it’s almost painful.
The ridiculous and escalating eulogies afforded Kyle work so well because of the contrast so firmly established by the young Sabara. He’s able to meld a character so despicable that it actually bolsters the film’s satire on the mediation of death. Director Goldthwait knows how to direct him to maximum potential.
“World’s Greatest Dad” has the guts to ask why tragedies get spun so out of control, why people crave for ballads and teary testimonials and constant mediation to work through the death of someone they barely cared about to begin with.
Williams does tremendous work, holding his emotions behind a thickly stretched veil and choosing to remain a largely contemptible enigma. The clear writing and characterization of his character allows sympathy to slowly squeeze through.
By the film’s final act, when Lance tries to liberate himself from the suffocating trap he’s built for himself, Williams again reveals his amazing dramatic abilities. The biggest trick he pulls is his ability to actually mine sympathy for Lance and make him feel both real and troubled.
“World’s Greatest Dad” is a bizarre film, and one that’s very hard to like. At times its attacks are clear and well articulated while being directed in creative, if not necessarily unique, ways. At other times, the attacks are confusing, plain and obvious even for its unorthodox subject matter.
The film is at its best when Williams is given space to break free. Though never heartily animated, he’s here wearing his age more proudly than ever. The lines of his face, the way his smile crinkles and his diminutive and pudgy physique make him look completely helpless.
As a devastating look at a wayward artist, “World’s Greatest Dad” succeeds in spades. But, as a high school satire, a media satire and a satire on death, it’s uneven at best.