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World's Greatest Dad (2009)

Frankenstein's Monster's Journal

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.

--Henry David Thoreau

I'm a sucker for movies about high school and movies about writers. Bobcat Goldthwait's World's Greatest Dad is both of these. Despite the title and Robin Williams' starring role, this isn't another blank-brained family comedy from the master of easy paychecks.* Goldthwait's touching, hilarious, and expertly observed black satire fuses the seemingly parallel paradigms of teen awkwardness, middle-aged despair, and frustrating traps of the creative mind to explore really dark territory.

In what I assume is a cosmic homage to his role in Dead Poet's Society, Williams plays Lance Clayton, a poetry teacher at a private high school. His class is barely attended, with most kids fighting to study Creative Writing under the cool and athletic Mr. Lane (Henry Simmons). His son, Kyle (Daryl Sabara) is a surly, socially defective student who accuses everyone of being gay while also trying to get his best friend, Andrew (Evan Martin), to look at German scheisse porn. The rotten cherry sitting atop Lance's misery cake is the fact that, despite years of hard work, he has yet to publish any of his five novels or the countless magazine articles he'd written on spec.

The one bright spot in his life is Claire (Alexie Gilmore), the young, hip art teacher he's been seeing lately. They kiss secretly between classes and make plans for sexy date nights. But Kyle will have none of it. He sabotages his old man's confidence with withering barbs and takes under-the-table photos of Claire's panties when the trio goes out to dinner. World's Greatest Dad's first half-hour is a Job-like endurance test, for Lance and the audience: how much cruel behavior can one character take before the story they're trapped in ceases to be escapist entertainment?

Just as I asked this question, the plot kicked in. Traditionally, story mechanics are supposed to be solidly in motion by about minute ten, but Goldthwait twists the screws hard and deep for a half-hour, before yanking his brilliant narrative rug: at the end of his rope, Lance goes to Kyle's room to confront him. He discovers his son dead, the victim of autoerotic asphyxiation. Overwhelming panic follows overwhelming grief, compelling Lance to hang Kyle from a bar above his closet and forge a suicide note.

News of Kyle's death shocks the faculty and students, but not as much as the hidden intellect revealed in his last words. Overnight, the verbally abusive dimwit becomes a misunderstood loner-genius whose picture is plastered all over the school, and whose story becomes the grand mystery his father had always wanted to write.

While it may sound like Goldthwait simply sidestepped a Heathers remake, World's Greatest Dad is a powerful movie that feels quite original. Lance's deceptions grow bigger and bigger until he no longer has the option of confessing. Kyle's death becomes the impetus for students coming out of the closet and re-thinking suicide. Suddenly, the loser teacher becomes the hit of the school, to the respective jealousy and suspicion of Mr. Lane and Andrew.

Enough about the plot! The less you know about World's Greatest Dad going in, the better. In truth, I've already said too much. But an excited blurb like, "Just watch this movie! Trust me!" makes for a lousy review.

This film reminds me of another little-seen gem from a few years back, Assassination of a High School President. Though World's Greatest Dad is not a modern noir, both movies share a twisted spirit. Their visions of high school aren't just metaphors for the doldrums and social climbing of adult life, they're twisted looks at a generation of teenagers whose problems would put most adult concerns to shame. In World's Greatest Dad, it's the adults who get dragged into the kids' problems and must learn to cope, instead of the other way around. What's most interesting here is the way in which Lance reverts to the cowardice, uncertainty, and deception that comes with youth--avoiding at all costs the high road we're always telling kids is the path to maturity. In this way, he's the bleak, mirror image of Assassination's Bobby Funke, desperately trying to cover up the truth to gain popularity, rather than uncover it.

Supporting these big themes are socks-knocking performances that serve a pretty tight script. Just as Will Ferrell surprised me with his dramatic turn in Everything Must Go, Robin Williams--for the first time since I can remember--acts the hell out of every scene; he's not showy, but he shows what he's capable of, and it's something to see. Lance's discovery of his dead son is a master class in agony, made even stronger by Goldthwait's decision to use music, rather than dialogue, to drive the point home.

Sabara is terrific as Kyle, though I struggle with the appropriateness of that description. In the same way I couldn't watch Catherine Keener movies for a decade because her portrayals of nasty characters were so repellent, I had a really had time watching Kyle dish out abuse. He comes across as a mistake; perhaps a last-ditch attempt to save a failing marriage, who wants the world to know just how much he doesn't belong in it. I shared Lance's pain at his son's death, but also his relief.

Gilmore's performance is the polar opposite. She radiates positivity and sexiness, and her trusting nature clouds our ability to figure out whether she's really smart or just kind of ditzy. Lance marvels at his luck in having landed her, as do we, and I love the fact that the screenplay challenges the limits of Claire's open-heartedness. Lance's descent into paranoia and bigger lies also rubs off on her, corrupting what we believe to be a mostly selfless image: when he's invited to appear on a talk show, Claire is noticeably disappointed that she won't appear on stage or on camera, and has been relegated to the "Friends and Family" section of the audience.

It's these little details that make World's Greatest Dad such a joy to watch--despite the uncomfortable depravity of its themes and characters (maybe because of them). Goldthwait brilliantly combines the insecurity and desire for recognition of writers (really, any creative profession) with the insecurity and desire for acceptance of high school. He purees them into a plot whose emotional complexity makes up for the simplicity of its details. Even the relatively quiet moment when Lance tells Claire his idea for a book title becomes a vicious duel of wounded egos and passive-aggressive compromise. Creative types will feel the sting of recognition instantly--as will, I'm sure, anyone who's ever been in a relationship. 

The movie's greatest unsung element, which deserves a big shout-out, is its soundtrack. A few directors dazzle me every time with their perfect use of music: Quentin Tarantino, Cory Udler, and now Bobcat Goldthwait use quirky, interesting songs in scenes that add meaning and underscore their emotional context in ways that (mostly) don't beat the audience over the head. Goldthwait in particular serves up some cool little audio oddities that I may have just been too uncool to recognize (does Bruce Hornsby really sound like that now?). But there's not a dud in the film.

World's Greatest Dad isn't for everyone, and you should know going in that this is probably not the movie you're expecting (if the preceding eleven-hundred words didn't tip you off). If you're up for the ride, though, you may find a touching, eye-opening slice of soul. I encourage those with creative drives, especially, to check this one out: Goldthwait makes being shoved into an emotional locker oddly comforting and addictive.

*Williams, not Goldthwait.

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