Divorced, mild-mannered teacher and wannabe author Lance Clayton (Robin Williams) is saddled with a wretched excuse for a teenage son, Kyle (Daryl Sabara – the sweet, puny kid from the delightful Spy Kids franchise). All his efforts at connecting with Kyle result in frustration and barely contained revulsion.
His non-domestic life is equally in the doldrums: his poetry group is riddled with lazy plagiarist nitwits, a clandestine relationship with Claire (Alexie Gilmore), a frankly bobble-headed narcissist art teacher is flip-flopping between Lance and his fellow English teacher Mike (Henry Simmons). Mike is younger, popular, an alpha-male and has crucially been recently published in the New York Times. The movie takes time to get going – and there’s only so much time we can honestly pretend to give a toot about the acid-laced soapy plotting.
“There’s no sugarcoating how difficult my son is,” complains Lance to the school’s headteacher – how true. Sabara’s Kyle is a quease-inducing cockroach of a human being: a sexually frustrated virgin, obsessed with masturbation and the most minging kind of internet filth, who spews inarticulate sexist and misanthropic remarks to all who hear. Sabara is likely to emerge with as much an acting career as Jason Biggs (American Pie), for a scene I shall not describe. I hope he was well-paid for this kind of compulsively watchable career suicide.
Equally, there’s no sugarcoating how pointed Goldthwaite’s poison-tipped satirical arrow is. While shown at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2009, the film has proven deliciously interesting and acute in the wake of Michael Jackson’s death and subsequent media absolution and furore.
World’s Greatest Dad is a pitch-black satire on our selective memories of death and the deceased. The movie’s concept is its reason for being, that and the big broad laughs. After Kyle’s sudden death, Lance takes it upon himself to give his son back some dignity and writes a suicide note. This swiftly goes viral and proves a mighty hit with the student body – “the goddamn First Amendment, huh!” – and they celebrate the previously reviled if not ignored boy. Further ghost-written journal entries leaden with lifeless purple prose lay further wrinkles to the dichotomy of Kyle’s real and posthumous public face.
There’s nothing particularly accomplished outside of the excellent acting (Williams is excellent, as is the aforementioned Sabara) and Goldthwaite’s wonderfully evil sense of humour. Witness Lance tearing up in front of a pornographic magazine stand in memory of his accursed little cockstain, and his trepidatious chat with the delighted grief therapist. Also, Goldthwaite cuts his satirical montages on each character’s kitchily-reimagined characterisation of Kyle as a master would forge a music video. Ultimately, he gets to have his cake and eat it too – viciously mocking our Kurt Cobain/Holden Caulfield “tragically cut short” hero worship, while appreciating the image-manipulation pack of lies can make people aspire to be better.
World’s Greatest Dad is not for everyone, but for those who grasp its merciless acidity, will find much to enjoy. Viewers of Bobcat Goldthwaite’s previous one-killer-joke dramedy Sleeping Dogs, and much-admired cult comedy Shakes The Clown will surely appreciate its ironic and frankly demented wavelength.