2002 was a great year for Robin Williams, because he appeared in three films playing three very different and, most importantly, non-comedic characters. He was terrific as the tortured writer Walter Finch in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia, the cranky kids show host Rainbow Randolph in the severely underrated Death to Smoochy (OK, that was fairly comedic, but not his usual comedy) and, in perhaps his best performance to date, the creepy photo clerk in the fantastic One Hour Photo. I thought this would be a new Robin Williams and we’d see his dramatic chops used more and more over the years. I was wrong. He appeared in either little-seen indies (The Final Cut, The Night Listener), schlocky comedic bombs (RV, Man of the Year) or providing voices for animated films (Robots, Everyone’s Hero). Finally, though, Williams is back doing more edgy fare with the latest film from writer-director Bobcat Goldthwait (yes, he’s a director now, and a damn fine one) with World’s Greatest Dad, a dark comedy that shows us where Williams should’ve been all along.
Williams plays the downtrodden Lance Clayton, a middle-aged man who constantly wants more out of life. He teaches poetry at the high school his son Kyle (Daryl Sabara) attends, but plugs away on his novels at night, aspiring to be the next great American novelist… despite constant rejection from publishing houses all over the country. While he does have the fortune of dating the school’s super-hot art teacher, Claire (Alexie Gilmore), she wants their relationship to be a secret at school and even around town, not wanting to be seen in public with him. To make matters worse, his son Kyle hates him… well, he hates everything, for that matter, as we hear his misguided rants about everything being for “fags.” Things start to look up for Clayton, though, as Claire finally wants to make her relationship known as they go out to dinner at a fancy place together, bringing Kyle along as well. The date goes fine, and he drops his son off at home so he can spend some private time with Claire… but he decides to leave early to talk to Kyle and, when he comes home, he finds his son dead, and makes it look like a suicide (I think you can probably guess what happened here…), complete with an eloquent suicide note. When the suicide note is leaked to the school paper, the entire school is moved by their late classmate and as the lies keep building and building, with Lance’s shot at fame and fortune knocking, he must come to grips with how it all started in the first place.
While this film does have it’s moments of unique comedy, most of them don’t come from Robin Williams, but the hilarious Daryl Sabara, best known as Juni Cortez in Robert Rodriguez’s Spy Kids series, in a wonderful turn as the hater Kyle. While he doesn’t get a ton of screen time, for obvious reasons, he makes the most of every second on screen and seems to me like a younger version of Chris Marquette, which is a very good thing. Alexie Gilmore is rather bland as Claire, but there are a few delightful smaller turns from Evan Martin as the soft-spoken Andrew, Kyle’s only friend and the only one who disapproves of what Lance is doing, Geoff Pierson as the school principal and Mitzi McCall as Clayton’s neighbor. Still, this is really Robin Williams’ show and he puts on a wonderful show as this father torn between a dead son who hated him and everything else and his own personal gain. Williams brings a warmth and subtlety to his performance that we don’t usually see, and he truly has a wonderful grasp on this conflicted character, Lance Clayton. He’s about as insecure as they come, constantly worrying why Claire is hanging around with him, and becoming paranoid over her friendship with the popular creative writing teacher Mike (Henry Simmons), and it’s really fun to see him stretch out these tall tales. I really hope we see Williams do more in this vein instead of failsafe mainstream comedies.
Any child of the 80s like myself is aware of the name Bobcat Goldthwait, but some might not know that he’s focusing on filmmaking these days and World’s Greatest Dad is his third directorial effort. Goldthwait, who also wrote the script, has a rather deft touch when it comes to humor – a far cry from the 80s actor we knew and loved – and he has definitely crafted a very unique and interesting story here that raises some intriguing questions. However, the story isn’t perfect and the film ends rather flatly and somewhat predictably. While this whole story keeps building up, you keep wondering if there’s a way out of this jam for Clayton, and the ending just didn’t have enough punch for me. Still, Goldthwait does display some great chops as a director, even though his storytelling may need just the tiniest bit of tweaking.
World’s Greatest Dad is a film about a man who is given a second chance, even though that second chance means one has to travel down a rather deplorable path. It’s a compelling and deviously funny film that does have some problems, but is well worth watching for Robin Williams’ performance and Bobcat Goldthwait’s unique storytelling style.
World's Greatest Dad is out August 20, 2009.