With the sudden and sad death of comedian/actor Robin Williams, many people have written articles remembering and honoring his brilliant work as well as how great a man he was personally. Earlier in the week I wrote one myself. It's clear that much of his work and acting performances touched many people. Everyone has their particular favorite. Mine is Robin Williams performance as Lance Clayton in Bobcat Goldthwait's brilliant satire World's Greatest Dad, currently streaming on Netflix.
Consider the previous paragraph a recommendation for those who haven't seen the film, from this point forward the article will deal with obvious spoilers involving the plot.
The set up of World's Greatest Dad is as followed (from a Sundance Film Festival Press Release).
Lance Clayton (Robin Williams) is a single father and high-school English teacher. He dreams of becoming a famous writer, but his previous novels have all been rejected by publishers. His 15-year-old son, Kyle (Sabara), is a sex-obsessed underachiever who despises everyone around him, especially his father. Kyle is a student at the school where Lance teaches an unpopular poetry class. His only friend is Andrew, a fellow student who spends his evenings at the Claytons' house trying to avoid his alcoholic mother. Kyle's consistently poor academic performance and vile behavior gain the attention of the school principal, who advises Lance that Kyle should transfer to a special-needs school. Lance meanwhile is in a non-committal relationship with a younger teacher named Claire, who is spending time with a fellow teacher named Mike who runs a more successful class than Lance. On nights when Claire cancels their dates and he is all alone, Lance bonds with his elderly neighbor.
For those of you familiar with Bobcat Goldthwait's work for his energetic stage personality, his acerbic black comedy, and his gruff but high-pitched voice, like in the Police Academy films, this will certainly come as a shock. However, for those familiar with Bobcat Goldthwait's work as a writer/director, it should be no surprise that Goldthwait deals in such controversial, taboo subject matter. His first film was in 1992, a dark comedy called Shakes the Clown, about an alcoholic and disturbed clown. It would take him 14 years until he directed his second feature, Sleeping Dogs Lie is about a youthful, impulsive instance of oral sex performed on a dog which opens the door to a black comedy about the complexities of honesty. When describing that premise one wonders why anyone would want to see a film about beastiality, but Goldthwait, like in World's Greatest Dad, which came after Sleeping Dogs Lie, deals with this odd and disturbing subject manner in a brave, honest, and even touching way.
World's Greatest Dad is a tricky, but perfect balance of dark satire, with themes of fame, suicide, loss, loneliness, and selfishness. Where Goldthwait goes for the jugular, in an especially dark, brave manner, is what happens to Lance after his son accidentally kills himself in an act of autoerotic asphyxiation. Embarrassed by the way Kyle killed himself, and indeed it would be somewhat embarrassing for any family that experienced something like that, Lance stages his son's death to look like a suicide, writing a touching suicide note that ends up making it's way around the school. Therefore, Lance's friends and students turn his son into a post-mortem cult phenomenon. Enjoying the attention he feels he's always deserved, Lance writes a journal in Kyle's name and soon attracts the attention of book publishers and Lance lands a television appearance on a nationally broadcast talk show. The school principal then decides to rename the school library in Kyle’s honor.
It might be tough to sympathize with a man who uses his own son's death as a way to become kind of a celebrity, appearing on talk shows, and Lance does let the success go to his head. This is grim subject matter as I've already pointed out, there are shades of Wes Anderson's Rushmore and the more cynical comedies of Woody Allen like Deconstructing Harry, however Goldthwait's film is bolder and braver than those two films, and he's not afraid to push the envelope.
A fellow teacher named Mike (who it's established has a sort of rivalry with Lance for Claire's affection) and especially Kyle's only friend name Andrew, who perhaps knew Kyle the best definitley thinks something is not so right here. Indeed, Andrew calls Lance out on this but Lance dismisses him coldly and says something thats hurtful emotionally.
Finally, in the films brilliant conclusion, Lance finds that he can no longer live with his lie and confesses before the school. Lance is denounced by the students and faculty, including Claire. Lance nevertheless feels reborn, and dives naked into the school's swimming pool. Andrew tells Lance he knew the truth all along, and that he enjoyed Lance's writing. It's an amazing scene, shot in slow motion by Goldthwait using Queen's "Under Pressure", it turns the film's cynicism into a euphoric tribute to human endurance, while still never losing it's edge or satire. Claire and everyone at the school hate him now, but we're extremely happy that Lance finally has closure.
In his final voice over, William's Lance says: I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It's not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone.
It's Robin Williams amazing, heartfelt performance, that lifts the films cynicism into something more, a bold and honest satire. Therefore I believe this is his best work as an actor, extremely complicated, and if Williams didn't hit the right notes this could have turned into a mean misanthropic film. Instead it's the bravest and smartest comedy maybe ever made.
The supporting performances should also be highlighted, especially Mitzi McCall as Bonnie, Lance's next door neighbor, who as I mentioned before bonds with Lance over their mutual love of marijuana brownies an zombie movies. Also, Daryl Sabara, who plays Kyle, does a brilliant job of what he's tasked to do, make us not like Kyle, a daring role to take on. Finally, Evan Martin as Andrew, Kyle's only friend, brings tenderness and poignancy to a part that could have been somewhat cliched.
As I said before, this isn't an easy film to sit through, and it might not be for everyone, especially after Williams suicide last week. As a matter of fact in one scene during the film when he's on the talk show, he utters these words, albeit half heartedly for the cameras but still rather chilling:
If your that depressed, reach out to someone, and remember suicide is a permanent solution to temporary problems.
I may be guilty of doing the very thing World's Greatest Dad satirizes, the post death cult like memoriam of someone, the difference being Robin Williams fully deserves it, and his son in the film Kyle didn't.
Simon Abrams of RogerEbert.com, wrote this about the passing of Williams and World's Greatest Dad.
In thinking about Williams's death, my mind immediately wandered to his performance in Bobcat Goldthwait's grim, hysterical "World's Greatest Dad." That film is bracing because it reminds me that, while it's not borne of malicious intent, we often use the dead to comfort ourselves. Our grief is often an indirect reflection of our feelings towards the people we mourn. This isn't a bad thing, but it is something we do to protect ourselves, to fill a sudden hole in our lives. I can only speak specifically about my own feelings, and...well, I'm a bit stumped. My mind went blank when I heard about his death. I am heartened by all the frank, loving talk it's inspired about depression, and suicide. But I'm also ok with being selfish now, and not dissecting my feelings too much. I know that doesn't add up to much, and knowing that does leave me feeling a little more empty. But Williams really was a marvelous performer. I knew this when, as a kid, I watched "Moscow on the Hudson" in my grandparents' den