Odds are if you remember Bobcat Goldthwait, you remember him as weirdo-gangleader-turned-rookie-cop Zed in the Police Academy movies and from a bunch of stand-up comedy specials back in the ’90s. While his name may not have been a topic of conversation lately, the guy’s been quietly working away in Hollywood, doing tons of voice work, directing a couple hundred episodes of “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and creating a pair of edgy cult films (1991’s immortal Shakes the Clown and 2006’s taboo-busting Sleeping Dogs Lie). Now comes Goldthwait’s latest writing/directing effort, the gloriously offensive, scabrously funny, surprisingly subtle black comedy World’s Greatest Dad.
The film stars Robin Williams in one of his dark moods. I don’t know why he hasn’t figured it out yet, but dark, indie-film Robin (Insomnia, One Hour Photo, Good Will Hunting, The Fisher King, The World According to Garp) is so much more brilliant (and less irritating) than twinkle-eyed Disney Robin (Hook, Flubber, Patch Adams, Bicentennial Man, Man of the Year, RV ... I could go on). Here Williams plays Lance Clayton, a spectacularly failed, past-his-prime writer who has yet to get so much as a short story published. Adding insult to injury, he works as a high school poetry teacher and is struggling to raise his miserable teenage son Kyle (Daryl Sabara from Spy Kids, all growed up and greasy).
Kyle is the prototypical Ungrateful Child. He’s a sullen, friendless jerk whose principal hobbies include hiding in his room, masturbating and ... well, that pretty much covers it. (Credit to World’s Greatest Dad for not turning Kyle into just another misunderstood teen. No, he really is an unrepentant douchebag of a kid.) Single dad Lance is trying his best, but his best is sadly mediocre. Sonny boy hates everything, work sucks and Lance’s manuscripts are still getting rejected by every publisher in creation. The one bright spot in Lance’s life is his girlfriend, the school’s attractive art teacher (TV actress Alexie Gilmore, whose longest run came on the short-lived “New Amsterdam”). But even she refuses to acknowledge their relationship during daylight hours.
In case you hadn’t picked up on it, the title World’s Greatest Dad is served up with the thickest, drippingest coating of irony. Lance isn’t a fantastic father, but he isn’t exactly a horrible guy, either—at least until the film’s major plot point. Since it doesn’t come until halfway through the film, it’s probably best to keep it under wraps. In simplest terms, however, Lance ends up ghostwriting something that gets credited to his son. Borrowing freely from assorted modern literary scandals—from JT LeRoy to James Frey—the script follows Lance as he achieves sudden (albeit reflected) fame for all the wrong reasons.
When I say “wrong” in this case, I mean “horribly, uncomfortably wrong.” World’s Greatest Dad isn’t interested in political correctness and pulls no punches along the way. What starts out as a demented take on already vicious high school satires like Heathers and Election gets progressively nastier. And the nastier the narrative gets, the funnier it becomes.
Goldthwait’s acid wit gets a workout here, but the shocking thing is how much heart the film secretly has. After trying his best to offend nearly every viewer in the first 10 or so minutes, the filmmaker slowly works his way back into our good graces. Some may find the film’s mildly redemptive finale somewhat incongruous with the black tide of pessimism leading up to it. Personally, I could have handled a bleaker, more cynical ending—but I can’t fault what’s there. This really is the story of a man who wants to live up to his titular promise—even if he does get brutally sidetracked along the way.
With World’s Greatest Dad, Goldthwait is well on his way to becoming a first-rate indie cameraslinger. Under his watchful eye, Williams (an old pal from back in the “Comic Relief” days) delivers one of his most tightly controlled performances. Those who can handle the raunchy language, the unconscionable behavior and the taboo subject matter will find Goldthwait and Williams’ collaboration a funny, foul and unexpectedly tenderhearted creation.
World's Greatest Dad99 minutes R. (Opens Friday 11/13)