Tuesday, December 8, 2009
World's Greatest Dad, the fourth directorial effort by Bobcat Goldthwait, represents a breakthrough for the maker of the super-cult alcoholic clown feature Shakes the Clown, one that cements his position as the underdog of anti-humanistic comedy (a sort of bleak Albert Brooks, if you will). Those familiar with the wild on-stage personae of Goldthwait and lead actor Robin Williams may be shocked to see how deadpan they play the abysmally dark comedy of this merciless examination of the quest for infamy; so nuanced are they both that the film demands reevaluations of their comic strengths.
Williams plays Lance Clayton, a high school teacher unsuccessfully shopping around four novels as registration for his poetry elective steadily declines. A single father to a slovenly, horrendous, teenage Antichrist named Kyle (Daryl Sabara), Lance finds his only remote joy in life in his younger girlfriend Claire (Alexie Gilmore), a flighty art teacher carefree in all matters but the publicity of their relationship.
The initial segment of the film centers on Lance and Kyle's relationship, as Lance attempts to put a brave face on his life while Kyle does his best to undermine Lance's existence. Kyle describes everything in gay slurs, a wannabe nihilist whose only pleasure seems to be extreme pornography. Kyle is so exaggerated that it's impossible to think of him as anything but real: even now in college, where I speak to just about nobody, I know people who casually use gay slurs to disparage everything. By placing all-too-common hate speech and pubescent angst into the mouth of such an openly hateful creature, Goldthwait brilliantly exposes the falsity of teenage superiority, though this certainly isn't a film about keeping the youngsters in their place.
At the 37-minute mark, a death occurs, one that breaks a number of taboos before it's played for comedy, and that's exactly how Goldthwait plays it. At this point, World's Greatest Dad morphs from a warped character study into a damning critique of the way other human beings co-opt tragedy. Lance finds himself in the middle of the ensuing frenzy that grips the school and, later, country, torn between basking in the attention for once in his life and negating Kyle and Kyle's life views in the process.
The structure of World's Greatest Dad makes it difficult to discuss wile honoring spoilers, which is frustrating because it is often incisive, unforgiving and deeply, deeply funny. When a psychologist comes to the school to help kids through their grief, he chats with the principal, who feels guilty about not attending the dead character's funeral as so few showed up anyway; the psychologist simply replies, "Don't blame yourself. It was a weekday." In the film's most brilliant segment, Lance prepares to go on an Oprah-knockoff as producers swarm about him, instructing the bewildered man on the proper way to show emotion on-camera to really sell it to the audience.
In an accompanying featurette originally broadcast to promote the film's VOD (Video on Demand) availability, Bobcat Goldthwait discusses the film for a bit before at last looking into the camera severely and redressing the rumors that he'd died. He also jokes about Police Academy, the albatross about his neck, but I confess that my perception of him didn't differ too much from what he presents as his detractors' mindset. Perhaps in an attempt to prove that he isn't some reclusive weirdo, Goldthwait throws in references to more contemporary films, such as an affectionate shout-out to Simon Pegg in a discussion between Lance and his neighbor over their love of zombie movies to a debate over the comparative quality of Johnny Depp's Willy Wonka to Gene Wilder's.
The humor in World's Greatest Dad is occasionally so pitch-black that it can't quite see what it's attacking, but there's a fundamental level of humanity to the film that is a bit rushed but still feels genuine. No other film has so perfectly balanced Williams' often tiresome comic barrage with his occasionally saccharine Serious Actor mode, dispelling the weakness of both sides of his persona. Incredibly, both Gilmore and, particularly, Sabara, the most prominent of the rest of the cast, are not covered in the shadow of Williams' magnificent performance (Sabara in fact gives one of the best supporting performances of the year). The film's missteps, what few it has, are not enough to slow the momentum for one of the most brilliant comedies in years. The modern comic market caters almost exclusively to people my age -- and so few treat us with any dignity -- and it's thrilling to see films like In the Loop and World's Greatest Dad offering more serious-minded laughs, the kind that are so much more rewarding because they ask something of their audiences.