The Good: Moments of humor, Acting, Well-defined characters, Direction
The Bad: Predictable plot progression, Obnoxious antagonist, Oppressive mood
The Basics: Bobcat Goldthwait gets so much right that he undermines his own endeavor, making World’s Greatest Dad largely unwatchable.
In an effort to spend time together, my wife has been pulling movies for us to watch together lately. The thing is, I’ve been very busy and there are several movies she set aside for us to watch together that she has gone ahead, watched, and decided it was not worth sharing with me already. The only film to survive the cull and that she actually insisted we watch sooner as opposed to later was World’s Greatest Dad. World’s Greatest Dad was an underappreciated Robin Williams vehicle which had the distinction of being written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait. Given the high credibility Goldthwait earned with me with his film God Bless America (reviewed here!), had I known that World’s Greatest Dad was one of his works, I certainly would have gotten to it sooner!
And now that I have . . . I find myself contemplating the film more in terms of what went wrong as opposed to what I liked. To clarify: I think World’s Greatest Dad is a wonderfully made film. Writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait deserves a lot of credit for taking a story that is difficult to make entertaining and packs it with amazing performers, who play their roles exceptionally well, and directing in such a way that the pace of the movie does not drag. Goldthwait very effectively manipulates the mood of the viewer as well, but this becomes a double-edged sword. Long before he plunges the protagonist into a powerful tragedy that screams for the viewer’s empathy, Goldthwait packs the screen with wince-inducing utterances from one of the most obnoxious characters to grace the big screen and a flighty love interest who is either oblivious to the point of cruel or uses her ADD as a prophylactic. The film being dominated by unlikable characters, and focusing on a man who has been beaten down by the world to the point that he is a milquetoast pushover makes the first half (at least) of World’s Greatest Dad more or less unwatchable.
Lance Clayton is a high school English teacher whose passion is for poetry and writing novels. He is stuck in academia, having never been published (though it is not from a lack of him trying). His poetry class, an elective, is on the cutting block thanks to student interest in Mike Lane’s Creative Writing class, though Lance has a bright spot at school; he has the affection of the younger, flightier Claire Reed. Lance’s life is complicated by his fifteen year-old son, Kyle. Kyle hates everyone and everything, save his friend Andrew (who he pushes around and grosses out more than actually likes) and masturbating. Kyle gets in fights at school, which puts Lance in a tough spot with the school’s principal, is hostile and mean to Lance and is antisocial to an unhealthy extent.
As Lance is reeling from Mike getting published in The New Yorker on his first attempt, Claire dropping plans with him to spend time with Mike and Principal Anderson expressing his desire to put Kyle into a remedial learning environment at a special school, Lance arrives home to discover that Kyle has died from autoerotic asphyxiation while masturbating. Loathe to have his son found in such a way, Lance rearranges the body to make it look like Kyle killed himself (via hanging). After the funeral and a short mourning period, Lance returns to school, where Claire is sympathetic, students transfer into Lance’s poetry class (largely to express interest in Kyle) and life is remarkably uncomplicated. But when Lance shares “Kyle’s” suicide note (which Lance himself wrote) with Claire, fortunes shift in Lance’s favor. When the suicide note is published in the school paper, Kyle becomes a sudden hero to everyone at the school. Lance fabricates a journal which he shows to the school’s grief counselor. Soon, the students who reviled and ignored Kyle are rallying around his words and Lance is reaping the benefits of his writing. But gaining celebrity and getting the girl do not stop Andrew from questioning the journal and it does not alleviate the guilt Lance has about who he has become and how his son has been elevated to the status of icon.
World’s Greatest Dad is worth seeing if for nothing else than the masterful performances Bobcat Goldthwait gets out of Robin Williams and Daryl Sabara. Sabara was a child actor, best known for the Spy Kids franchise, who has been making the transition to adult acting jobs with reasonable success. Playing as far from a safe, likable, family-friendly character as he possibly could, Sabara makes Kyle seem like a living breathing character instead of an amalgamation of the worst possible teenage traits written into one person. Sabara so perfectly plays Kyle that on comes to hate virtually every moment he is on screen and that takes some talent to execute.
Perhaps even more impressive is Robin Williams. Williams has an exceptional body of work and, despite his history of treading toward the comedic, he has played roles with an incredible amount of range over the years. Parts in films like Bicentennial Man (reviewed here!) and Awakenings (reviewed here!) have shown that he has the ability to powerfully evoke emotions using finely-honed dramatic presentation of his lines. In World’s Greatest Dad, Williams plays Lance Clayton with a browbeaten quality; his posture is slumped, his eyes emote sadness constantly and he has the ability to – with the most subtle movement of his eyes, lips and tilt of the head – play Lance with moments of silent, desperate hope before his posture reverts to one that is clearly the embodiment of defeat. Bobcat Goldthwait incredibly gets the camera to focus on each nuance of Williams’ performance and he captures Robin Williams without a hint of goofiness or the actor who is playing the role. Every moment Lance Clayton is on screen, we are watching him; not the actor portraying him. That is exceptional acting.
As for the rest, World’s Greatest Dad is far from a perfect film. How neither Mike Lane (who is motivated to knock Lance down a few pegs) nor Claire Reed figure out that “Kyle’s” writing is Lance’s, especially when Claire has read so much of Lance’s other works, remains a severe problem. For someone who has been writing for as long as Lance has, it is virtually impossible to take on a different narrative style. While virtually all of the characters question how smart Kyle appeared posthumously, none seem to realize that his “voice” tracks with Lance’s.
In a similar way, World’s Greatest Dad tires the viewer out with Claire. Claire begins the film as the lone ray of light in Lance’s rejection-filled world. Soon, though, that is taken from him by the younger, flashier model and as Claire ping-pongs between Lance and Mike the viewer is left with the feeling that both men can (and should) do better than the low-hanging, capricious fruit. Alexie Gilmore plays the role well-enough, but her quality of performance does not make the character any more enjoyable to watch.
That is World’s Greatest Dad in a nutshell: it’s a decent-enough story made up of superlative ingredients, but the result is still unpleasant. World’s Greatest Dad is a misery cake; it does not matter how fine the ingredients are, the result is still something one is not likely to take a second slice of.
For other works with Daryl Sabara, please visit my reviews of:
Weeds - Season 8
A Christmas Carol
For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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