Looking back at Robin Williams’s career either for just the last five years or the last decade leaves you feeling pretty underwhelmed. Dotted amongst a landscape of underdeveloped films or mindless and comedy-stricken disasters are small nuggets of gold that gave his fans some modicum of hope to cling to as they awaited the man’s glorious return to the land of decent roles. For awhile, it seemed Robin had sold his soul to some demon of film mediocrity in return for an unending line of awful characters which let him off without ever having to flex his acting muscles. He became a caricature and little more. Is World’s Greatest Dad just another short-lived spark of greatness amidst an ongoing dry spell? Or has Robin Williams finally realized that deeper, reflective roles like his turn in World’s Greatest Dad light the way to getting him back in the cinematic spotlight where he belongs.
Lance (Williams) gives his son Kyle (Daryl Sabara) the best life he’s able while working as a high school teacher and failed author. If the theme of ungrateful teenagers who spite their parents seems too common for “suburban hell” dramas, then the polar extreme of Sabara’s performance will come as a breath of fresh air. It’s still the same general personality, but taken to a level that combines an egocentric twist with a nasty streak of perversion. He berates his father and only friend (Michael Thomas Moore), abusing them both emotionally as he sees fit. Lance’s professional life at school isn’t much better as his poetry class runs the risk of cancelation due to lack of student interest thanks to his younger, more charismatic co-worker Jason who runs an overflowing creative writing course. As Lance’s relationship with fellow-teacher Claire (Alexie Gilmore) begins to take off, Kyle meets an unfortunate fate during one of his one-man erotic asphyxiation sessions leaving his father to cope with the loss the only way he knows how: he writes. More specifically, he writes his son’s suicide letter which becomes an overnight hit and propels Lance to a third-party career as a writer. Kyle’s “writings” begin to pick up traction and Lance must choose between coming clean and enduring the sycophantic love of everyone who once bullied Kyle but now claim to have been his closest friends.
Eighteen years have passed since Bobcat Goldthwait’s first feature film and his style, pacing and ability to tell a well-rounded story have increased dramatically in that time. Shakes the Clown, Bobcat’s first film, suffered from low production values and performances that ranged across the board in terms of quality. In contrast, World’s Greatest Dad strikes a good balance with its somber stewing in suburban hell with a mix of classical schools, shiny plastic malls and single-family apartments. The performances have an equally apt character to them with Williams’s mood fluctuating rapidly between the highs and lows which naturally come with success, love and parenthood; as the story progresses though, Robin dwells in a state of silent despair as Lance lives out the natural disappointments which come from a career, a son and a romance he can’t ever honestly say he enjoys. Alexie Gilmore plays the love interest everyone eventually comes to regret; the girl whose fickle interest in a man wavers with every changing variable, whether it be success, sexual appeal, etc. Finally, Daryl Sabara, who’s come a long way from Spy Kids, adopts such a miserable and loathsome personality that makes Lance’s suffering all the more tangible for the audience. The heights to which Kyle’s selfish behavior reaches make the film possible, without it Lance’s reverse-plagiarism would seem a contemptible act instead of a father’s desperate attempt to connect with his son, even falsely.
The direction, the production values, the performances and the well-handled themes of father-son relations, belonging and ill-gotten success make World’s Greatest Dad one of the best and most underappreciated films of the year. There I said it. It’s one of the best films of the year, and perhaps the best Robin Williams performance in over a decade.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
For such a small film the Blu-ray comes loaded with a bunch of interesting features. Outtakes and deleted scenes start off the collection, but it’s the behind the scenes featurette and the HDNet piece on the film which make the film increasingly interesting retroactively. Hearing Goldthwait talk about the film and what he hoped to accomplish with it only affirms that the film is grounded in a desire to explore a complex and adult view on the comedy and drama inherent in parenthood. Assuming the featurettes whet your appetite for more, the disc has a commentary which proves to be as equally engrossing as the film itself. A music video for “I Hope I Become a Ghost” by The Deadly Syndrome rounds out the set (it’s an eerie video).
"World's Greatest Dad" is on sale December 8, 2009 and is rated R. Comedy, Drama. Written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait. Starring Robin Williams, Daryl Sabara, Alexie Gilmore, Michael Thomas Moore, Jermaine Williams.