Magnolia Pictures // 2009 // 99 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rubino (Retired) // December 14th, 2009
"Diving's not really a sport. It's falling."
Bobcat Goldthwait, the Police Academy star turned indie director, has a very different definition of the "world's greatest dad." He isn't necessarily someone who's there to console or support you; he's not going to take you fishing or help you move into college. No, the world's greatest dad in this film is a little more twisted, to say the least.
Lance Clayton (Robin Williams) is a divorced, unpublished, high school poetry teacher with an intolerably crude son named Kyle (Daryl Sabara, Spy Kids). Despite weak efforts to settle down with a secret sweetheart (fellow teacher, Claire, played by Alexie Gilmore), get one of his five novels in print, and save his struggling literature elective, Lance is most frustrated about his creep of an offspring.
When Kyle accidentally chokes himself to death, Lance tries to cover up his son's shameful demise. He forges a suicide note and a diary, which take the school by storm and turn Kyle into a misunderstood role model for introverted youth. The Cult of Kyle grows out of control, solving all of Lance's various shortcomings; the only problem is that none of it is true.
World's Greatest Dad is a stylish, dark comedy about a messed up father and his even more messed up son. The film is relentlessly crude and populated with thoroughly unlikable beings. It takes a certain amount of commitment to really dig into a comedy this dark -- to actually sympathize with any of the characters -- especially when it ends on such a pretentiously opaque note.
The film's problems lie in its sense of humor. Screenwriter and director Bobcat Goldthwait has crafted a script filled with interestingly loathsome characters and awkward moments, but the film's darkness isn't funny. The first act of the film is a build up of vitriol only interrupted by Kyle's disturbing death. The jokes are flat compared to the film's drama; however, the drama fails to resonate because it's so crazy.
The rest of the film fares a little better. Following Kyle's death, the student body could care less (a grief counselor remarks that not a single person has seen him regarding the suicide); once Kyle's fake suicide note leaks on to the web, however, the kids find a new posthumous hero. Goldthwait piles on the irony to great effect as the students make t-shirts, dawn buttons, and get tattoos in Kyle's honor. It's an effective commentary on the way society reacts to death, and Williams's portrayal of Lance as a man torn between mourning and success is just restrained enough to work.
While the film builds up momentum, just as Lance Clayton's career does, it doubles back on much of its good will with a strangely tacked-on ending. Without giving anything away, I can say that the film veers towards a frustrating ending that feels noncommittal. All of the trouble Lance got himself into is left to be resolved outside of the film.
To his credit, Robin Williams turns in a strong, if somewhat generic, performance that never bogs the movie down. He's appropriately upset or pained when he needs to be, and you genuinely feel bad for the guy during the film's first act. Playing Kyle couldn't have been easy -- he's like a phony Holden Caulfield -- but Daryl Sabara sells it. He manages to be even better as an icon and ghost; a montage set to a song by The Deadly Syndrome drives home the idea that the student body is using Kyle as a blank slate to project themselves on to. The supporting cast is equally strong, including Alexie Gilmore as Claire, Henry Simmons (Shark) as the hip writing teacher Mike, and Geoffrey Pierson (Dexter) as Principal Anderson.
Goldthwait handles all of this with indie sensibility and style. His framing techniques have a straightforward, retro look about them, and his use of special lenses and lighting is effective without being too flashy. He keeps a lid on the insanity by making sure the look of the movie is somewhat grounded in reality.
The World's Greatest Dad DVD looks good, with strong colors and sharp lighting. The audio, both stereo and surround, is also suitable. That fine-tuned soundtrack comes in loud and clear, and the special cameo by Bruce Hornsby, who sings a song during the Kyle Memorial Library dedication, is a nice surprise. The disc comes with a decent selection of special features, including a commentary track by Goldthwait, some strange deleted scenes, outtakes, a music video, and making-of featurettes. I especially enjoyed the Super8-styled 30-minute behind-the-scenes video, which features interviews with most of the cast and crew.
Don't try, not even for a moment, to judge this film by its bright, bubbly cover, adorned with a loveably hapless Robin Williams. This is a dark, dark comedy that ends up with more disturbing drama than laughs. It's a well-made film, populated with strong characters and framed in an efficiently stylish manner, but it waivers in this unenjoyable middle ground between drama and comedy. By the time the end rolls around, and the film attempts its optimistic swan dive, World's Greatest Dad had squandered any humor or likability it earned through intelligent satire.
If dark comedies are your bag, you'll probably find something to enjoy here. Otherwise, steer clear.
Review content copyright © 2009 Michael Rubino; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Music Video