In August of 2014, just after the death of Robin Williams, we all mourned his passing by revisiting the many films and characters he had given us over his lengthy career. Whether it was Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire, or Good Will Hunting, there seemed to be a go-to film of his for every person in every generation. There was this universal charm about him to which everybody could relate.
There was one performance, however, that in the moment was deemed a bit too uncomfortable for most to watch. Only in the years that have passed could we appreciate this gem for what it is all over again. This film is 2009’s World’s Greatest Dad.
Robin Williams plays Lance Clayton, a struggling writer/teacher, who has just finished his 5th novel. His son, Kyle (played by Daryl Sabara of Spy Kids fame), is, for lack of better words, a perverse loaner who views sex in just about everything he sees. As far as douchebag teenagers go in movies, Kyle raises the bar here. Future snot-nosed 15 year old characters in films are going to have a tough time beating this one.
The first 40 minutes of the film play out as a cutesy dark comedic family melodrama. There are some strong character developments. As disgusted as you are by Kyle, you feel that there may be something more deep down inside of that character. “My biggest concern with his character,” director Bobcat Goldthwait recounted, “It wasn’t like ‘How far we could go with making him a horrible person?’ But it was how far could we make a horrible person, and believe that Robin’s character still loved him.”
And then just as you find yourself getting adjusted to the film, things seem to take a turn for the absolute worst. What you get is a cunning and realistic portrayal of society dealing with the freak accident death of Kyle. Kyle’s death is symbolic, but for all of the wrong reasons. After his father covers up his death as a suicide, and the suicide note is leaked, the memory becomes much greater than the Kyle there actually was. Everybody in this film has an utter disdain for Kyle prior to his death. But as soon as he dies, and they discover the note that paints him as a “tortured soul,” he’s a hero. He becomes more of an enigma than a person, even though nobody gave a damn about him two weeks prior.
And then there is Lance, caught right in the middle of it all. In the midst of mourning his son, he now has a new challenge to face. Finally, he’s got the chance to become successful as a writer, but it’s only by riding on the coat-tails of Kyle. “It’s the counter-point [to Dead Poet’s Society] of the guy who isn’t successful,” Robin Williams recalled back in 2009, “who kind of in this weird series of misfortunate events, becomes successful, and then goes ‘But, this isn’t real.'”
As a dark drama, it flows beautifully. But how is all of this made funny?
World’s Greatest Dad never really sets out to be funny. There are actually many moments where you are convinced that there’s no way anything funny can come out of something so depressing. And yet it does. With comedy comes tragedy. In fact, the palpable tension that you feel lingering throughout is probably what allows this film to thrive as a dark comedy. The film is peppered with snarky one-liners all throughout, which serves as a great counterpoint to the emotional substance of the situation.
All in all, it’s the teaming of Robin Williams and Bobcat Goldthwait that makes this film work, if only due to their stand-up backgrounds. It’s all-but written on the wall throughout, as it plays out more like a social experiment than anything else. It certainly has deep roots in the notion of standing at the edge of the stage. It’s midnight, and you are the last comic on. You stare out into the abyss of strangers you are supposed to make laugh, however, nobody’s paying attention to a thing you say. Now you find yourself stuck with two options. One is you keep doing your prepared set and bomb frantically, only to beat yourself up the entire way home. Or the ambitious comic gene can kick in, as you jump further off-the-rails of ridiculousness with your most bizarre material. You snub your nose at all of them as they walk out dissatisfied and bitter. You go home feeling like a hero in your triumph. World’s Greatest Dad always goes for the latter, and you’re left in a room full only of people who actually want to see you there.
It’s the same motivation of holding a mirror up to reality, pushing all of the buttons that we don’t want pushed. It uproots us from our comfortable cinematic experience 40 minutes in, and places all sorts of demands on us. Constantly it asks us, “Are you in, or are you out??”