When Michael Jackson died a couple of months ago, it appeared the world had found a new hero: Michael Jackson. The new hero, same as the last. All of a sudden, it was the 80s again. All Michael Jackson, all the time. The self-proclaimed “King of Pop.” And people complain Kanye West has an ego. All-day marathons on radio stations across the country pumped his greatest hits. Tribute songs were made by artists to pay homage to the fallen Jackson. Los Angeles spent millions of tax-payer money on a televised public memorial. The funny thing being Jackson had been virtually irrelevant for the past decade plus. He released one album in the aughts (2001’s “Invincible”), but good luck hearing any track from it during the all-day radiowave tributhons. If it wasn’t for his pedophilia scandals, he would have been dead to us long ago. A similar situation arises in World’s Greatest Dad in which it takes a death for a life to be remembered, or in this case, manufactured.
Lance Clayton is the titular father, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anything resembling “great” about him, especially in his parental role. Lance is a failed writer who’s written just under a double digit number of manuscripts with nary a nibble to show for it. In fact, he’s made a promise to himself that he’ll give up this writing business if his latest manuscript fails to make a splash. To maintain a foot in the industry he yearns to be a part of, he teaches a poorly attended high school poetry class. Not poorly attended because of Lance’s teaching prowess, but merely for the fact that “it’s poetry.” The school principal makes sure Lance is aware that unless something dramatic happens to his classroom numbers, he’ll find himself out of a job. Lance is divorced and about the only positive he has in his life is his art teacher girlfriend, Claire, twenty years his junior. If only his young adult son, Kyle, was worth a damn, his life might even be on the incline.
Kyle is about as inglorious as a motherless child gets. He attends the same high school where Lance and Claire teach, but certainly wouldn’t be caught dead in either one of their classes. He hates the arts like Hitler hated Jews and denounces the mere mention of renting a movie with a word more closely associated with a British cigarette. The only art he’s concerned about is of the pornographic persuasion. Every waking a moment of his is spent ogling the undressed figure of the opposite sex online, even delving into the darker “German scheize porn” his sole friend can’t even get behind. Kyle is so fixated on the act of self-gratification, Lance catches him in a bout of autoerotic asphyxiation. Lance pleads with him to at least refrain from that particularly dangerous act as it has the potential to cause more than blindness.
Desperately trying to bond with his seemingly lost son and trying to keep a grasp on his fledgling relationship, Lance brings Kyle to one of his dates with Claire. Kyle can’t stand her even though he refers to her as the school TILF, for the simple fact she still has her clothes on. His interest is slightly piqued however, when he realizes she’s wearing a skirt. If it weren’t for her blasted underwear, the cell phone pictures he takes underneath the table would rival Sharon Stone’s scene-stealing performance in Basic Instinct. No mind, though, they’ll do the trick. Lance drops Kyle off at home afterward and vows to be back as soon as he says “goodnight” to Claire at her house. Lance comes home horrified to find Kyle in a familiar position, only this time he’s no longer breathing. If only Kyle were real or David Carradine had been able to see the film, one would have served as a cautionary tale for the other. Not wanting to see his son go out with a whimper, Lance does what any loving parent would think of. He hikes Kyle’s pants back up to his waist. He types out a suicide note and places is it gently into his pocket. Finally, he hangs his son from a pull-up bar in the closet. All the ingredients of a purposeful self-inflicted death. When Kyle’s Lance-written suicide note is published in the school paper, Kyle is posthumously revered by the people who didn’t know him and Lance’s writing becomes beloved although no one knows it’s him behind the scheme.
I’ve been down on Robin Williams at times throughout his career. He’s always been known as a funnyman, but his antics have proven too bizarre and outlandish for me. I appreciate him more in his reserved roles, like One Hour Photo, Insomnia or his Oscar-winning supporting performance in Good Will Hunting (he’s perfect). The darkly comic subject matter of World’s Greatest Dad provides Williams with another understated performance, but allows him to give off some of his natural humoristic qualities. He is great here as Lance Clayton, who does something loving for a son who treats him so poorly, but is able to capitalize from the tragedy as well. He does so in a way, we don’t despise him for it, although he continues to perpetuate the thought of the words coming from Kyle’s untapped mind. Williams’ new heart transplant has seemingly given him a new lease on life and although no one could blame him for wanting to make wacky comedies, I hope he stays put in the darkly comedic, where he excels.
Writer-director Bobcat Goldthwait is probably best known (or at least most remembered) for his role as the long-haired, slightly off-kilter Zed from the Police Academy series. He entered into the realm of directing with the alcoholic clown comedy, Shakes the Clown in 1991, before moving exclusively into television before 2006s Sleeping Dogs Lie. With just two films prior to World’s Greatest Dad, he’s quickly coming to establish himself as the Chuck Palahniuk of cinema, willing to explore taboo subjects, but with a slightly less bizarre bent. I’d even be willing to venture a guess Goldthwait has a great film in him, though this one isn’t quite there yet. The film never quite ventures far enough beyond its premise to deliver a completely satisfying experience, but over time I’d expect Goldthwait to iron out those wrinkles.
Goldthwait has created characters which ring true, no matter how unlikeable they may be. Kyle is the epitome of perversity, going as far as hollering his nastiness down the locker room hallway. He’s the definition of a son only a father could love. It’s then a tribute to Goldthwait’s script, Williams’ acting and the harrowing situation which enables the viewer to feel immediate sympathy and shock upon the discovery of Kyle’s death. The dissection of the nostalgia (albeit completely manufactured) developed after one’s death is an important one. Although slightly absurd, Goldthwait’s take paints a picture perfect portrait of the mystery of death and the way it affects the living.
A friend of mine feels almost instant hurt at the mere mention of a dead person’s name. He can’t be counted on to laugh at a joke, no matter how funny, if the deceased is used as comic fodder, even if the joke was originally told while the person was still breathing. As the saying goes, death is the only certainty in life, but the way we react to it varies wildly. World’s Greatest Dad breaks down the absurdity to a point where it holds up a mirror to society that makes us all the better for it.