Magnolia Pictures // 2009 // 99 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // December 8th, 2009
Lance Clayton is about to get everything he deserves.
"He was a sweet boy."
Lance Clayton (Robin Williams, One Hour Photo) is a failed writer, a high school poetry teacher, and a single father. His teenage son Kyle (Daryl Sabara, A Christmas Carol) is every parent's nightmare -- a rude, selfish, perverted, idiotic, repulsive human being who demonstrates nothing but hatred and contempt for everyone and everything around him. One day, Lance comes home to discover his son has accidentally killed himself (I will leave it to you to discover the disturbing details). In a moment of desperation, Lance re-arranges things to make his son's death look like a suicide. The reaction at the high school is unexpected and surprising: one of the nastiest kids in the school is soon being hailed as a misunderstood hero.
Though in need of a little more polish in spots, Bobcat Goldthwait's subversive comedy/drama World's Greatest Dad is a genuinely memorable experience; boasting an intelligent screenplay, a nuanced lead character, a strong Robin Williams performance, and some perversely perceptive snapshots of human nature. It's a very dark and often unpleasant tale, but viewers who can survive the sharp servings of cynicism and depravity will be rewarded with a thought-provoking experience.
The first half-hour of the film is essentially devoted to developing the characters of Lance and Kyle. The latter is most assuredly one of the worst human beings on earth. Sure, he may not be a psychopathic killer, but being brutally murdered might be more pleasant than spending much time with this kid. Every word that comes out of his mouth is hate-filled bile. He's homophobic to the extreme, despises music of all sorts ("The only thing worse than music are the people who like music..."), is a sexist pig who refuses to see women and girls as anything other than objects, and treats his caring father like scum. Suffice it to say no one in the viewing audience will be grieved when Kyle passes away.
On the other hand, Lance is a fundamentally decent guy, played by Robin Williams in an appealingly understated manner. They say there's no such thing as a perfect father, and I suppose Lance has technically made some mistakes here and there, but he is a candidate for sainthood simply by virtue of not strangling his son. He's patient, understanding, giving, and kind; though none of his efforts are ever rewarded with any sign of improvement on Kyle's part or even a simple, "Thanks, Dad." Lance generally feels like a failure, and it's not just because he's raised such an awful son. His girlfriend Claire (Alexie Gilmore, Definitely, Maybe) constantly seems to be flirting with the idea of leaving Lance for the younger Mike (Henry Simmons, Shark), his job is in jeopardy due to the unpopularity of his poetry class, and all of his novels and magazine articles have been rejected by every publisher he's sent them to.
When the eloquent suicide note Lance writes on behalf of Kyle is circulated throughout the school, Lance is surprised at the reaction it inspires. Not only is Kyle mourned as a misunderstood genius, but Lance is hailed as a truly great father who was the only good thing in his son's life. Feeling particularly elated about the attention his writing is finally receiving and the manner in which his reputation is soaring, Lance continues the charade. A few days later, Kyle's equally elegant "diary" is released, earning even more praise for its powerful, inspirational message of hope. Lance is not only the toast of his school, he's a guest on nationally-syndicated talk shows. Claire stops flirting with Mike.
At the heart of Goldthwait's film is the idea that lies can be a greater source of good than truth, as long as those lies are providing the public with what they need to hear. As human beings, we often yearn to find meaning in every life, to understand every death, to know that everything bad that happens in somehow part of some mysterious and painful plan to make things better overall. "Just think of how many suicides will be prevented due to students reading Kyle's journal!" the school psychiatrist marvels. Indeed, it's tempting to embrace what Lance is doing, particularly considering that we feel he deserves some good fortune after all the torment he's endured. Alas, perhaps the only thing more painful than being a rejected writer is to be an acclaimed writer who cannot take the credit for their own work.
The film receives a perfectly solid Blu-ray transfer. World's Greatest Dad may not be a visual masterpiece, but Goldthwait's pleasingly crisp and orderly manner of framing his scenes is certainly easy on the eyes (this is a focused film that does not allow unnecessary elements into the frame). Flesh tones are warm and accurate, blacks are reasonably deep, and detail is decent enough. There is a bit more noise throughout the film than I was expecting, though. Audio is also perfectly fine, though sound design is fairly minimal and dialogue is occasionally just a little bit quiet. The music comes through with strength and clarity, which is important considering the major role that it plays in the film (more on that in a moment). Extras include an affable but slightly spotty commentary with Goldthwait, a pair of EPK-style making of featurettes, some outtakes, deleted scenes, and a music video. Other than the commentary, everything is fairly dull and uninvolving.
Goldthwait is clearly in love with some of the musical selections in this film, because when he cranks up a song he often lets it go on and on until it reaches the very end. These numbers are accompanied by lengthy montages, and unfortunately only a couple of them actually come close to justifying their existence. One gets the sense that Goldthwait simply didn't want his songs to be cut (he admits that his movie feels an awful lot like a musical at times), so he just found whatever excuse he could to let them continue uninterrupted. Look man, I like the songs too, but they disrupt the flow of the film and become a bit overwhelming after a while (particularly during the second half, when they start to appear in rather close proximity to each other).
Also problematic is the manner in which the film concludes. To a certain degree, it's a cathartic ending that satisfies on a basic level. However, it's also an ending that isn't particularly strong from a thematic viewpoint. I feel like World's Greatest Dad is primarily a movie of ideas and observations, but the ending would seem to conclude that it's primarily about its lead character. Lance Clayton is an interesting guy (if not quite the enigma some critics suggest he is), but he's not as interesting as the subversive observations about human nature contained within the film.
It's always nice to see Williams in a non-comedic role (the film may contain elements of dark comedy, but Williams plays his role in a purely straightforward manner at all times), and World's Greatest Dad is perhaps Goldthwait's best film to date. It's not for the faint of heart, but certainly an intriguing watch. I suggest making it the other half of a double-feature with Observe and Report.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Music Video