I finished “World’s Greatest Dad”, a 2009 independent film starring Robin Williams, and though my distinct nausea was dulled by the movie’s closing moments, I retained the uncomfortable queasiness only a good dose of realism can bring. I only wish that Bobcat Goldthwait’s screenplay had been tighter and even more hard-hitting because the conclusion served to ‘dumb it down’ for the wider audience. Roger Ebert says, “He loses his nerve just before the earth is completely scorched. I have a notion his first draft screenplay might have been unremittingly dark and cynical. It might not have been ‘commercial.’ Audiences think they like bleak pessimism, but they expect the plane to pull out of its dive and land safely.”
This trailer manages to messily paint over the darker aspects of the movie with stupid music.
Ebert is exactly correct in his analysis. I, for one, always claim loudly at the end of movies like “World’s Greatest Dad” that I wished that they had been more ‘real’ – in the sense that ‘real’ is harsh, awful, and usually does not have a slow-motion, whimsical montage set to Queen’s “Under Pressure” just as things seem to be able to get no worse. But the first hour and twenty minutes of “World’s Greatest Dad” gripped tightly to a terrifying image of human tendencies that we all know is lurking beneath but don’t want to meet toe-to-toe.
I can say without doubt that nearly every character in “World’s Greatest Dad” deserves to be loathed. Lance, played by Williams with his characteristic awkward fear he brings to his more serious roles, is a lonely, divorced high-school English teacher stuck with a stack of rejected manuscripts and a dead-end career. His son, Kyle, is pure evil – he is a womanizing pervert, a bigoted homophobe, and an idiot who is only in school because his father teaches there. But he is only the first character we learn to hate in this film filled with disgusting people.
The dislike of Lance first arises when he is consulting with the principal over a misogynistic remark Kyle yelled to a girl in his class. The principal, easily despised for his utter lack of interest in the students, learning, almost succeeds in completely out-awful-ing Lance. Lance, confronted with the principal’s request to place Kyle in a special needs school, vigorously contends that Kyle is ‘fine’, just misunderstood. But we know that Kyle is not – at home, he treats his father like a speck of dust and is only interested in Internet fetish pornography, spying on his elderly neighbor changing, and autoerotic asphyxiation. In hiding Kyle’s secrets – knowing that Kyle has real issues – Lance commits a terrible sin as a father. We get the sense that he loves Kyle, but only because he has to – really, Lance is apathetic, clearly understanding that he cannot help Kyle but too ashamed to reach out to others for professional assistance. I wanted to sympathize with Lance but his selfish streak made it difficult and sometimes impossible. He should not have gotten married nor had a child because it is made quite clear that he is happier alone.
Lance’s girlfriend, Claire – who he loves and hates simultaneously – is no better. She is vapidly narcissistic and her personality could easily be transferred to a minor glitterati posing behind people with true talent. Lance finds her enticing – she’s years younger than him, after all, and it’s hard not to see the reflection of Kyle’s fetishism in their relationship. But at the same time, he loathes her – his tension in their conversations and their sexual relations is painful to watch – and his unwillingness to condemn his real feelings is what ultimately saves Lance’s soul (rather unrealistically, I must say).
After Kyle’s accidental death during an autoerotic asphyxiation session, Lance is so ashamed that he fakes Kyle’s suicide, complete with a note. He sobs over Kyle – I think less from sadness and more out of guilt that he was not there more often and not trying harder to do right by Kyle – but death is irreversible. In the note, Lance portrays Kyle as a troubled teenager who felt misunderstood and really loved his dad. Really, Kyle was certainly troubled and misunderstood, but he hated his father and was nothing more than a soul-sucking smear. My intense hatred for Kyle made me feel no compassion for his death – I was saddened by my sympathy for the guilt Lance felt and by the instance of death, which affects me painfully regardless of the case. Could Kyle have been helped? Nobody will ever know – and I wonder how Goldthwait wanted Kyle to be seen.
Soon after the death, Kyle’s suicide note (written by Lance, remember) is published in the school paper and my nausea kicked in again. The students, who detested Kyle, are quick to respond with the silly “We Love You Kyle” banners and terrible posthumous love poetry that serves only to trivialize suicide and death. The school hires a ‘grief counselor’ who is more interested in doing his job for the paycheck than out of actual care for his patients. The principal suggests a dedication of the school library. Lance ghost-writes Kyle’s ‘journal’, which soars to fame and wins recognition from the publishers who long scorned his own writings. Posthumous cults of fame are a reflection of the perverted nature of our culture to glorify suicide and death for more than what it is. Lance’s own manipulation of his son’s death circumstances reflect the disgusting fact that while death during masturbation is embarrassing and taboo, suicidal death is depicted somehow as a ‘lesson’ and not the terribly sad thing it really is. Death is sad (and sad is a strong word like hate or love). Death is not a life lesson as seen on Oprah.
“World’s Greatest Dad” is a haunting film that captures the most grotesque in our world. I finished the movie and I hated almost everyone – Claire, the principal, the grief counselor, the students, the book publishers, the smiling audience on “The Dr. Dana Show” – for their insensitivity and their evil natures. I wish that Goldthwait hadn’t ended the movie the way he did – with a little ribbon – and showed how it should have played out. Lance crumbling beneath his tremendous guilt and shame. His lonely neighbor relegated to her outcast status as a hoarder. Kyle’s ‘friend’, Andrew, forced to live with his abusive, alcoholic mother amidst a society that lowers its eyes in shame about his situation. And Claire and the principal and the grief counselor and the students continuing to live in their narcissistic little play-lives, using and abusing people in order to better themselves, and disgustingly unaware that they are a terrible blight on the world. “World’s Greatest Dad” ended with a smile on the outside and a black knot of issues on the inside – and that, too, is a reflection of the way people really are, all too often.
“The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone.” In this movie, that’s almost everybody, and in this, “World’s Greatest Dad” is absolutely and sadly correct.