World’s Greatest Dad

World's Greatest Dad (2009)

“You guys didn’t like Kyle. That’s okay.”

I’ve never been a big fan of dark comedies. I’m not sure why, exactly. Maybe I just have a hard time getting past the darkness to see the comedy, or maybe some sort of idealism caused me to sort of shut down and decide that “that’s not funny,” when dealing with whatever the subject matter was. However, I think possibly I’m starting to come around, because today’s movie, World’s Greatest Dad is both thoroughly dark, and seriously funny.

Robin Williams stars as Lance Clayton, a high-school English teacher, wannabe author, and single father. His son Kyle (Daryl Sabara) is an foul-mouthed, unpopular, dim-witted, perverted fifteen year-old douchebag of the worst kind. Lance’s greatest dream is to write a best-selling novel, but he’d settle for getting something, anything published. Unfortunately that has yet to happen. The one thing he has going for him is a relationship with the school’s youngish art teacher Claire Reed (Alexie Gilmore). Unfortunately even here, he’s frustrated as Claire doesn’t want to go public with their relationship, and she seems awfully interested in being friends with a handsome, athletic, colleague who happens to be going through a divorce.

Meanwhile, Kyle seems devoted to actively trying to be the most repugnant human being he possibly can be. Kyle has exactly one friend, and is constantly getting into trouble due to his tendency to make wildly-inappropriate comments in any situation.

Lance’s world is turned upside down when he returns home from a date with Claire to find that Kyle has done the full-Carradine and died in a most embarrassing way. In his despair Lance decides to preserve his son’s dignity and re-stages the scene as a suicide, quickly typing suicide note on Kyle’s behalf before calling the authorities. Then, just as things are getting “back to normal” someone publishes the forged suicide note in the school paper, and everyone finds it to be profound, deep, and life-changing. Lance now must deal the odd combination of grief, guilt, and adulation, with fantastically entertaining results.

The first forty-odd minutes of this movie are pretty hard to watch. Kyle Clayton is amongst the most unlikable characters I’ve ever seen. This is clearly by design. Sabara really does deserve credit for committing to bringing to life a character that can be (retrospectively, at least,) sympathetic, yet possessed of no discernible redeeming qualities. There are some laughs in this first act, but Kyle is such an utterly irredeemable little shit that I spent most of this time waiting for his foreshadowed death to finally happen. It becomes clear that it was important to show just exactly who Kyle was, because most of the comedy later on  comes from the contrast between the unlikable turd who he actually was, and the inspirational figure people remember him as through the lens of Lance’s posthumous writing in his name.

The film really gets going in the second half when Lance’s writing on Kyle’s behalf becomes a sensation. The movie remains dark, but the laughs become more and more frequent, and the movie actually becomes oddly uplifting. Williams is really at the top of his game throughout the film, but in the second half of the movie, as he deals with the possibility achieving his lifelong dream in such a heartbreaking and bizarre way he really shines. Lance is really dealing with a bevy of simultaneous emotions, and Williams’ portrayal is masterful.

One thing I liked about this film is rather than relying on a series of increasingly implausible circumstances, the majority of the drama comes from a single unlikely but entirely plausible situation. It is entirely understandable that, in the face of crisis, Lance would seek to protect his son and himself from the humiliating circumstances of his depth. It’s believable that an experienced writer and admirer of poetry, Lance could, in a moment of absolute grief write a faux-suicide note that people would resonate emotionally with its readers. Everything that happens to him afterward, and his reactions to it strike me as utterly within the bounds of the character as established in the first half of the film.

In World’s Greatest Dad, writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait tells an unconventional story that is both moving and amusing. The second half of the movie is really good enough for me to rank it as a “must see.”  Unfortunately this is proceed by forty minutes of some of the most uncomfortable viewing I’ve experienced. Here’s the thing though, I don’t know if the end would have worked as well as it had if characters hadn’t been as well established as they were in the beginning. Still I can’t help but think that at least five to ten minutes of Kyle being horrible couldn’t have been trimmed and made this a more enjoyable movie. As it is, I can’t quite call it must see, but it’s absolutely worth seeing.

[World’s Greatest Dad (2009) – Directed by Bobcat Goldthwait – Rated R for language, crude and sexual content, some drug use and disturbing images ]

OM|ED Rating: Worth Seeing