Thanks to the magic of Netflix (and a little to my eclectic film choices), WORLD'S GREATEST DAD has been classified in the "dark movies" suggestion list. The very idea of Robin Williams doing anything dark was very foreign to me, so I decided to give it a shot. WORLD'S GREATEST DAD is a movie that causes interesting problems. It's very charming on paper. Being the indie project of comedian Bobcat Goldthwait, raising the issues of a child's death and broken dreams, it had everything to charm me. While WORLD'S GREATEST DAD has a pure heart, it doesn't have any manners. Not that it's especially potty mouthed, but doing a comedy about a terrible drama is a difficult thing to do. You have to build believable pain in your characters while remaining funny and witty about it. Turned out to be a good Robin Williams performance, playing that character of a timid, down-on-his-luck but charming guy that he often does, carrying a rather strong message, buried under a very, very heavy handed approach.
Williams plays Lance Clayton, an unpublished writer who teachers poetry in a high school. He's a single dad, raising his son Kyle (Darryl Sabara), who is about the greatest asshole and the greatest masturbator the world has ever known *. Of course, he practices the ancient art of auto-erotic asphyxiation and eventually messes up while doing it and ends up dead. Lance overwhelmed with pain when he discovers the body and decides to make it look like a suicide. The suicide note he wrote ends up leaking in the student journal and has thing crazy tidal-wave effect on the school. It touches everybody's life and inspires them to come to term with their problems. Kyle also becomes a symbol and somewhat of a mythic figure in school. A figure of worship, almost. Lance is facing a difficult decision, be truthful to himself and to the memory of his son, or give him in death, the life he never had.
Robin Williams' performance is by far the best of the movie and it's also its biggest weakness. It's as if he didn't understand the tone meant for WORLD'S GREATEST DAD or straight up couldn't adjust to it. His game is a lot more subtler than the rest of the cast. It results in an aggressive contrast where every character seems like they're plotting to make Lance miserable or lack any form of basic human empathy. There are also some serious pacing issues that make the movie drag on. To establish that Kyle's a professional masturbator, Lance finds him performing auto-erotic asphyxia one other time before being dead. In between both sequences of jerking off, Kyle is bitching, moaning, being impolite and making his father miserable in general. It's never implied that if Kyle masturbates so much and has an anti-social behavior that he's lonely of has some sort of issue. It looks a hundred percent self-satisfied. I wouldn't have an issue with it, if 1) his dad didn't have such a rich inner life and 2) if his death didn't serve such an emotional point in the story. Kyle's an idiot and people reappropriate themselves his death through the writings of his dad (who are supposed to be Kyle's owns).
WORLD'S GREATEST DAD keeps shifting between a low-brow comedy and a grief story and I think both genres are profoundly incompatible. There can be humor in any story, just not the kind of humor Goldthwait is aiming for in this movie. It's too rough and brutal for the subject matter. It's too bad because the point of this movie is something not often discussed. The profound lack of communication that's caused by the need for self-actualization. The people around Lance are reinventing Kyle to fulfill their own needs, turn him into the savior figure they so desperately need and end up worshiping a product. The memory of Kyle fades as his post-mortem popularity augments, I thought it was a really clever and unique twist on how people can make you lonely, because they are so hunched over themselves. That's what I mean, when I say WORLD'S GREATEST DAD's heart is pure. It suffers from questionable casting choice and misdirection of ideas and becomes ultimately inefficient. But I can't blame a movie for aiming high. This one just doesn't come anywhere close to what it's trying to accomplish.
* Sounds like a teenager all right...well a parody of it at least.