Movie: World’s Greatest Dad (2009)
Director: Bobcat Goldthwait
Starring: Robin Williams, Alexie Gilmore, Daryl Sabara
Written by: Bobcat Goldthwait
So I recently found out that my cousin, the one closest in age to me, just died. My reaction to the news, to put it mildly, was not filled with sadness. I’ll avoid going into excessive detail about my non-relationship with my dirtbag relative and instead let the last time we spoke speak volumes about the whole. It happened during the first night I came back to visit La Crosse after moving away in California, what I’ve referred to in the past as my “This Is Your Life” night. My cousin and I were both trashed and stumbling around downtown when we came across each other, and after the usual reunion faux-enthusiasm things went sour. First he offered me cocaine. Then he started to bitch about how I hadn’t let him know I would be back in town (I didn’t have, nor would I have used, his contact information). To top it off, he flipped out on a good friend of mine who tried to bail me out of the uncomfortable situation. My cousin took off his shirt and puffed up his chest before throwing what I’m assuming was meant to be a pulled punch, but one which faintly connected anyway. Having very little cognitive ability left, I watched the disaster play out with wide, blank eyes before escaping. When I reflected on it later, I decided that if I never saw my cousin again, I’d be perfectly happy.
I didn’t. And I am. But I wonder how his dirty life will be whitewashed in death, how many of his sins and exploitations will be forgotten, and how much of who he really was will be left in the memories of anyone who cares to remember him.
It’s further testament to my total apathy about all this that I didn’t immediately find parallels between what just happened and a film I watched days later which brilliantly confronts the phony veneration of the dead. The martyr of World’s Greatest Dad is a high school douchebag named Kyle (a disgustingly swell performance by Daryl Sabara), who snuffed it while choking himself and jerking off. In life, Kyle was a pervy prick who treated everyone around him like shit. As a result, his entire social circle consisted of one (very browbeaten) friend and a father whose only affection for him came from the bondage of family. In death, Kyle became a saint, a genius, the school mascot. He could do no wrong; the very people who hated him before he died were scrambling for any scrap of him afterwards, some going so far as to fight over a not-exactly-teen-fashionable Bruce Hornsby album because they thought it was Kyle’s favorite. (In truth, as typical, Kyle hated everything.)
This outpouring of doctored memories and false grief is his old man’s fault. Robin Williams turns in a tremendous performance as Lance Clayton, a frustrated writer and poetry teacher who stupendously fails at turning his son’s death into something positive. As maligned as anyone else was by Kyle, Lance nonetheless cries his eyes out upon discovering his son’s body. Williams’ restraint and abandonment in this scene creates the film’s most heartbreakingand stoic moment.
Attempting to cover up the nature of his son’s death, he hides the hand lotion and porn and hangs his son in the closet door. Dad then pulls out his writing talents and pens a poignant suicide note, which he tucks into dangling Kyle’s pocket. The community – which has apparently never seen an episode of CSI – buys the cover story, but the scheme works a little too well. Lance’s gesture of dignity soon devolves into a mire of exploitation in which the father is both swept along by the contrived grief of others and using his son’s memory for his own ends. The greatest evidence of Lance’s complicity in the affair is in his writing of a fake journal which he passes off as his son’s. With the help of the school’s grief counselor – a more blatantly conniving and desperate bastard – Lance gets all the fame he ever wanted before realizing that he’d rather not hang himself by the charade anymore. In the film’s final moments, Williams delivers a joyously deadpan fuck-you-all moment, calling his son out for who he really was and giving up the game. And after that, there’s some Robin Williams dong.
Say what you will about Bobcat Goldthwait’s spastic acting career, but as a director and screenwriter he’s terrific. The hero worship of the dead presented in World’s Greatest Dad might have come off as a tad implausible before the death of Michael Jackson, but in a world where everyone can turn on a dime, calling someone a freak in one breath and a genius in the post-mortem next, this premise is downright sensible. Goldthwait has created a very dark comedy, but what’s most notable about this film is how it’s also a very deep, realistic, and compassionate breed. There’s no slapstick or cheap punchlines; instead Goldthwait presents fleshed-out characters who act out what is, at the core, a story about a man freeing himself from the expectations of others – even if someone had to die for him to do it. It’s not always an uncalled for type of liberation.