Saturday, September 25, 2010

Review - World's Greatest Dad

Bobcat Goldthwait is carving out a career for himself as a filmmaker who looks for humour in the darkest subjects. His first film Shakes the Clown had an alcoholic lead character, 2006's Sleeping Dogs Lie built a surprisingly sweet and funny romantic comedy around an act of bestiality, and now he turns his attention to the subject of teenage suicide and its consequences. World's Greatest Dad stars Robin Williams as Lance Clayton, a failed author, a failed teacher and a failed father, although it would be hard for any father to cope with a son as obnoxious as Kyle (an excellent Daryl Sabara). The opening scene has Lance walking in as his son is engaged in an act of autoerotic asphyxiation, an early portent of the tragedy to come. Lance tries so hard to understand his son, to build bridges with him and make a connection, but Kyle is a real prick, seemingly uninterested in anything other than internet pornography and detested by the vast majority of his classmates.

Goldthwait's film explores how people's perception of Kyle suddenly shifts after one of his masturbations sessions goes tragically wrong and he ends up strangling himself. Lance returns home to find Kyle's lifeless body hanging in his bedroom, and mortified by the manner of his son's death, he tidies up the scene to make it look like a normal teen suicide. He even drafts a final note in his son's name, explaining why he decided to take his life, but Lance allows his writer's instincts to take over, with the resulting note proving to be far more eloquent and sensitive than anything Kyle would be likely to produce. It's enough, however, for Kyle to be recast as a misunderstood soul by those who formerly hated and ignored him.

World's Greatest Dad is a smart and smartly timed satire of the way contemporary society lionises and exploits the memory of the dead. As Kyle's former classmates display a hunger for more of his tender, poetic writing, Lance finally sees an opportunity to fulfil his own frustrated dreams of being a published author, suddenly unveiling his son's diary, and being invited on talk shows to discuss his grief. He even uses his new status to improve relations with his girlfriend Claire (Alexie Gilmore), who he was on the verge of losing to a more handsome, sensitive and successful colleague. Goldthwait's view of his characters could be described as overly cynical, if his writing wasn't so honest and perceptive in the way it punctures the disingenuous sentimentality that so often attaches itself to grief.

As a director, Goldthwait lacks a certain finesse, and World's Greatest Dad suffers from a rudimentary visual style and some clumsy tonal shifts. There are misjudgements, like a musical montage late in the film, and Goldthwait kind of fudges what should be Lance's big cathartic moment, but generally this is funny and clever stuff. The film has a cast capable of giving weight to characters that occasionally lack definition, and in the central role, Robin Williams gives his most committed and empathetic performance in years. World's Greatest Dad is a dark, dark comedy, but the straightforwardness of Goldthwait's approach and his refusal to yield to sentimentality or cliché makes it an oddly endearing and satisfying one. The film earns its occasional moments of touching uplift, most notably in its closing scenes, wherein a band of misfits and outcasts, all of whom have lost something, find solace in each other.