Bobcat Goldthwait is perhaps best known to some as squeaky-voiced buffon Zed from the Police Academy sequels. But over the last decade or so, the actor-turned director has been carving himself a reputation for writing and directing comedies of a somewhat ˜unique’ nature. Take breakthrough film Sleeping Dogs (2006), which gained a lot of attention on the independent circuit for exploring the hardly mainstream idea of canine bestiality. World’s Greatest Dad (2009) certainly doesn’t bark up this particular tree (sorry), but neither is it any likelier to receive an airing on the Disney channel.
Robin Williams plays widower Lance: schoolteacher, aspiring writer and single parent to teenage son Kyle. Lance’s life is stuck firmly in a rut. Mild-mannered and far too polite for his own good, he has little success as a writer, no respect from his fellow teachers and a constant suspicion that his girlfriend may not be as committed as she pretends. But most of all, he is father to Kyle, a kid best described as a complete and utter tool. Kyle is your typical tantrum-throwing teenager, but dialled up to eleven: he’s homophobic, anti social, openly dismisses his father’s attempts to connect with him, and – as Lance accidentally discovers one night – has a troubling obsession with autoerotic asphyxiation. It is this particular ˜hobby’ of Kyle’s that ultimately changes Lance’s life.
Discovering his son dead after one onanist experiment too many, the distraught Lance understandably chooses to cover up the circumstances of Kyle’s death and portray it as a deliberate suicide. After moving the body to a less-incriminating position, Lance types up a phony suicide note and plants it on his son before contacting the authorities. Months later, Lance returns to work and is horrified to find that the suicide note has been leaked to the student newspaper. It seems his attempt to salvage some of Kyle’s dignity by portraying him as a deep, emotional soul has backfired: the students elevate Kyle to position of a Kurt Cobain-like figure, a poet for the masses. The public obsession with his son’s suicide note ironically makes Lance’s writing the centre of attention, changing his life forever.
The film bravely positions its comedy firmly at the expense of the students and local community who seek to raise Kyle to position of martyr. People who barely registered his existence when he was alive are quick to fabricate relationships with the boy and narcissistically relate his ˜struggle’ to their own issues. Considering the film’s earlier depiction of Kyle’s utter detestability, this adulation is frequently lampooned to hilarious effect. At one stage the film shows a montage of various students sharing the screen with their own configuration of the Kyle ˜myth’: Kyle as goth, Kyle as maths nerd, Kyle as troubled jock. The inherent ridiculousness of the situation increases to the point of farce, where the ever-stretching space between the truth and the fiction threatens to snap at any moment. This soon takes it’s toll on Lance. While he secretly enjoys the attention his writing is receiving, he is torn over the fact that his son was nothing like the mystical pariah in the suicide note, as well as the sense that he is wrongfully exploiting both his son’s death and the public reaction to his note.
Robin Williams’ portrayal of this internal struggle forms the spine of World’s Greatest Dad, and it is hard to imagine a performance that could better negotiate the difficult moral line trodden by the film. As the forever put-upon dad, Williams is warm, genial and easy to sympathise with, but his real success is to maintain this sympathy while his character exploits the attention surrounding him. One of the best scenes has Lance appear on an Oprah-style chat show, discussing his son’s personality. As he talks of the supposedly deep and poetic nature of the boy, he begins to visibly break down, except it is not clear to us if he is crying or hysterically laughing. With this simple behavioural tick, Williams is able to perfectly summarise the turmoil afflicting Lance: at once he is distraught, cynically acting, or just hopelessly amused by the lunacy of his situation. This is one of Robin WIlliams’ strongest performances in years. The hyperactive buffoonery of his early career seems a distant memory compared to the sort of vulnerable, understated likeability on show here. While Williams has of course been playing ˜serious’ for a few years now, it is still fascinating to see him playing the straight man in a world gone crazy.
Goldthwait deserves much credit, too, for tackling such difficult issues as public grief and suicide with complete fearlessness. He is never afraid to aim his ire at the dominant behaviours of our society, even at risk of causing offence. Indeed, Kyle’s note is initially portrayed as a positive influence on the community, allowing those who engage with it the courage to confront their own issues. Surely, one may argue, this is a good thing? That the ends justify the means? But Goldthwait quickly takes aim at the hypocrisy of this ˜performance’, suggesting that these people are ultimately self-obsessed, with very little genuine sympathy for Lance, Kyle, or any other ˜outsider’. Kyle’s posthumous fame becomes a magnet for the shallow and the duplicitous, the irony being that Lance eventually learns to love Kyle for who he really was, realising that he has come to feel every bit the social pariah his son was.
It takes a courageous writer to channel our sympathies so perpendicular to how society teaches us to behave, but Goldthwait must be applauded for doing so, and for largely succeeding. Perhaps at times the film does hammer its point home a little too hard (particularly with Kyle, who is an unbelievably horrid young man at the start), but on the whole this is a film that knows its argument and follows it with conviction. One of the commendable achievements of World’s Greatest Dad is that it uses Lance’s situation to attack the mystique of suicide, to render it as an absurd phenomenon: one which we, as a society, must handle differently. That Kyle’s supposed ˜suicide’ is nothing more than the result of masturbatory misadventure seems to underline the point quite nicely. Putting the dead on a pedestal? It’s a load of wank.