I hate to speak ill of the dead, but because that’s one of the underling themes of Bobcat Goldthwait’s third feature film, World’s Greatest Dad (yes, that Bobcat Goldthwait), I’m going to do it anyway. I went to high school with a kid named Jeremy. He was no more than five feet tall, and possibly the most obnoxious, grating, awful douchester I’ve ever known. Whenever he got a chance, he’d draw a crowd and viciously insult me or hit me with his drum sticks, knowing there was nothing I could do about it because he was such a puny, little guy — if I’d gone with my instincts and beat the living shit out of him, I would’ve been the asshole. And he knew it. So I had to put up with it. Day after fucking day. And when he wasn’t fucking with me, he’d do the same with everyone else. He was reviled, a loathsome little guy with zero friends and half a class of mortal enemies.
Then one day, Jeremy had an asthma attack and died.
What happened the next day at school was unfathomable. Girls were bawling their eyes out; guys were offering each other sympathetic pats on the back, and teachers (who also detested him as recently as the day before) were singing his motherfucking praises. Suddenly, the entire school adored the guy. They went on for days about what a sweet person he was, how he had this fantastic sense of humor, and how close they were to him. Everyone wanted a piece of some of that Jeremy sympathy, and it didn’t matter how fake they had to act to get some of it. It was appalling.
It is that experience that I’m sure many of us have had that Bobcat Goldthwait explores in The World’s Greatest Dad, with heartbreaking, hilarious, and spot-on effect. Who says there are no new ideas in Hollywood? It just took the guy from Police Academy and Hot to Trot to find one, and he explores it unmercifully. Robin Williams (yeah, that Robin Williams) stars as Lance Clayton, a schlubby high-school poetry teacher mostly ignored and doormatted by his peers and students. All Lance wants, however, is to be a published novelist — he’d written five books, but none had ever gone anywhere and what he really wants is an audience. Miraculously Lance is also in a secret relationship with a younger and prettier teacher, the sex-hungry Claire (Alexi Gilmore), who has clearly put Lance into the permanent back-up boyfriend position, which becomes clear when she starts ladder climbing, sleeping with the better looking, younger creative writing teacher when he gets published in The New Yorker.
Lance also has a 15-year-old son, Kyle (Daryl Sabara), who is an unrelenting, peeling scab of obnoxiousness. He’s completely obsessed with sex; repeatedly calls his well-meaning father an “idiotic fag”; is a contrarian in every sense; has only one reluctant friend; is obsessed with porn; is painfully profane; and is the kind of guy who sees a girl in the hallway and says, “Come on over. That pussy isn’t going to eat itself, you know?” And while Lance loves his son, he doesn’t actually like him. No one does. There’s no reason to. He’s not tortured or misunderstood or secretly brilliant. He’s just an asshole, and that’s it.
And then one day, Lance comes home to find his son has accidentally strangled himself to death while masturbating. It’s a painful scene — weird and almost funny, but too heartbreaking to laugh at. Lance, who doesn’t want the school to know how his son died, zips him up, hangs him from the ceiling, frames it as a suicide, and composes Kyle’s suicide note, a note that is published a few weeks later in the school newspaper. The suicide note is a huge hit with the high school; suddenly, girls are bawling their eyes out; guys are offering each other sympathetic pats on the back, and teachers (who detested him as recently as the day before) are singing his motherfucking praises. The entire school adores the guy, and his suicide note somehow spoke to them all — it was their little Catcher in the Rye. Lance, so enamored with the attention and starved for an audience, then decides to write his son’s journal, which becomes an even bigger sensation. Kyle is suddenly the Martha Dumptruck of the high school, and Lance is perceived as the world’s greatest dad.
It’s a twisted black black comedy, one that gets unpleasantly uncomfortable at times — part of you wants to root for Lance’s success, while the other part is disgusted at his exploitative behavior. But in any respect, Lance still manages to be one of the few sympathetic characters in the movie. Robin Williams is great in a muted, restrained role — he continues to prove that he’s a far better dramatic actor than he is a comedic one. Goldthwait — who directed 1991’s Shakes the Clown, which also could’ve been a darker more twisted comedy if it hasn’t been marred by the era-appropriate cast (Julie Brown, ugh) — seems to hit the exact right tone for World’s Greatest Dad: When it’s funny — and it often is — you’re too ashamed to laugh. His pacing lumbers at times, but his script is insanely good, and the performances are excellent.
It’s a smart, spot-on satiric film, all the more unexpected coming from a guy who graduated from high school 30 years ago. But, while the clothes and the technologies may have changed, I suspect the fakery has always been there. Leave it to Officer Zed to expose it like no other high school comedy has since Heathers.
This review was originally published during the Boston International Film Festival.
Dustin Rowles is the publiser of Pajiba. You can email him or leave a comment below.