Overview: World’s Greatest Dad examines the nature of posthumous celebrity though dark comedy, clever writing, and a fine performance from Robin Williams. Magnolia Pictures; 2009; Rated R; 99 minutes.
A Film of Foreshadowing: The film begins with an introduction in the form of a casual voiceover. Viewers are quickly hit with information that will be highly important later in the film. Robin William’s Lance Clayton, our main character, is a failed writer who has settled in as a high school English teacher. His greatest fear is the possibility of dying alone. The first half of the film continues to illustrate Lance’s mediocre life. We meet his son, Kyle, and his girlfriend, an eccentric, flaky woman who insists the two hide their relationship.
A Touchy Subject: The film takes a dark turn about 40 minutes in, when Lance discovers his son, dead after an accident involving auto-erotic asphyxiation. In a grief-stricken stupor, Lance stages the body to make it look like a suicide. He even writes Kyle’s suicide note. When the note is leaked, the school becomes obsessed with Kyle and his writing, which of course, is really Lance’s writing the entire time. On paper, this premise isn’t one that works. It is too harsh, too controversial. But it works wonderfully, and there are a few notable reasons as to why.
How It Works: Kyle’s character is, simply put, a little shit. Each time he’s on screen, he is rude and spiteful. He is misogynistic and homophobic, and he treats his father terribly. Kyle is the worst kind of person, so when he dies, it’s hard to feel that bad for him. But Lance, with his sad eyes and constant kindness, is likable enough that viewers can almost excuse his morally questionable actions. With a quiet sweetness and an emotionally charged performance, Robin Williams is the main reason this film comes together so successfully.
The Comedy: Despite the death and deceit, this is definitely a comedy. An extremely dark comedy, sure, but it is a very funny film. It’s quirky enough for a lot of smiles and there are a few bits worthy of outright laughter. One standout moment happens when a student in Lance’s poetry class dramatically recites the lyrics to “Under Pressure.” Lance quickly catches his attempt. “That’s a Queen/Bowie song,” he says, wearily. “I didn’t think you knew that one,” the student replies. “Jason, I’m white,” Lance quips. The comedic timing is pure gold.
The Lasting Message: World’s Greatest Dad achieves many things. It’s funny, smart, well acted, and constantly entertaining, but the most compelling aspect of this film is its view on the way the dead are seen in our society. The film is a loud commentary on how people are talked about in drastically different ways after death, regardless of how they were treated in life. At its core, it’s a criticism of selfish appropriation. Writer and director Bobcat Goldthwait manages to make a strong statement, tell an entertaining story, and make it all pretty funny. World’s Greatest Dad is an exceptionally satisfying film.