Bobcat Goldthwait’s stand-up comedy has always caught the edge of that fine line between laughing at jokes and laughing at a comedian who might very well be having a breakdown or a seizure – or something worse.
His films walk a similar tightrope – or at least the last two do. On the heels of 2007’s “Sleeping Dogs Lie” comes “World’s Greatest Dad,” an even more accomplished – and squirm-inducing – dark comedy than its predecessor.
In “World’s Greatest Dad,” Robin Williams plays Lance Clayton, an unhappy high school poetry teacher and frustrated writer. He’s got a drawer full of unpublished novels and screenplays and he dreams of the day his writing will bring him recognition.
Lance’s albatross is his teen-aged son, a raging idiot whose only talent in life seems to lie in his ability to rub everyone the wrong way. Kyle (Daryl Sabara) spends his time devouring the rankest kind of porn and talking the kind of game to women that he’ll never actually be a part of. When Lance walks in on Kyle at the climax of a bout of auto-erotic asphyxiation, Kyle accuses of Lance of being the weird one for spying on Kyle.
Kyle is virtually friendless, which changes dramatically after Kyle dies. His suicide note, published by the high school newspaper, turns him into a posthumous icon to depressed and anguished teens everywhere. Just one problem: Kyle didn’t write the note – Lance did, after finding Kyle dead from a rematch with self-choking. Embarrassed, he created a suicide scene of Kyle in his closet, wrote Kyle’s farewell note and called the police.
Suddenly, everyone claims to have been Kyle’s friend, embracing his final message as an expression of tortured genius. Lance basks in the reflected glory, even knowing what a dislikable troll his son was.
Goldthwait pushes and pushes, pitting Lance’s blend of guilt and grief against the allure of the attention it earns him. Williams beautifully underplays, letting the lifelong desperation and general sense of resentment do battle in Lance’s head with his innate decency as a person. Who’s to know? Only him. And other people take his silence for deep-seated grief.
Williams’ straight face is perfectly matched with the awkward awe of people who once dismissed Lance – people like the school’s principal (Geoff Pierson) and even his condescendingly easy-going colleague Mike (Henry Simmons), whose creative-writing class is way more popular than Lance’s class in poetry.
Goldthwait’s writing is brutal and funny, full of awkward pauses and the kind of outrageously off-color banter that can make you gasp at its ruthlessness.
“World’s Greatest Dad” is meant to upset, even as it overturns clichés of hypocritical sanctimony with surprising laughs. Bobcat Goldthwait may be the most unique filmmaking sensibility since Albert Brooks.