[Spoiler alert: I discuss the plot of this film in detail.]
We’ve all seen the cup. “World’s Greatest Dad.” Michael Scott has a similar cup on his desk, one that reads “World’s Greatest Boss.” The genre is of course novelty shop humor, like one of those backyard chef’s barbecue bibs with funny sayings on them that offer slight mockery of the wearer as a kind of pre-apology for the food on the grill. In Bobcat Goldthwait’s new movie, World’s Greatest Dad, his fourth directorial effort after Shakes the Clown, Windy City Heat, and Sleeping Dogs Lie, the cup logo takes on a larger irony but ultimately takes the novelty humor of it very seriously indeed.
Robin Williams steps forward from his uncredited role as the mime teacher in Shakes to play Lance Clayton, an aspiring writer and high school poetry teacher. His class at school is under threat of cancellation, his ostensive girlfriend (Alexie Gilmore) seems to be more interested in their African-American colleague (Henry Simmons), and though he is an aspiring novelist, Clayton has never had anything published, while his colleague has a first time effort published in the New Yorker.
Despite all his frustrations in love and work, at least Clayton has a family of sorts, consisting of his teen age son Kyle (Daryl Sabara). We need to talk about Kyle. He’s a bit of a problem. He has turned that teenage phase of parental hate and embarrassment into a geographic age. Kyle’s mockery of his father, from Clayton’s enthusiasm about socializing with his son to his taste in music, which seems to consist solely of Bruce Hornsby, is relentless. Like a gold-digger on a date, Kyle flirts with going to a movie with Clayton only to make him a new computer monitor instead, and then abandon him in the mall. Anything Kyle doesn’t like is “queer.” Kyle has no friends at school. Even the Goth girl laughs at him when an athlete punches him in the hallway. He hates music, finds movies lame, and prefers anal pornography, which is why he needs the new monitor – to better see the gross images he downloads off the World Wide Web. This is a kid who takes clandestine pix of his dad’s girlfriend’s panties under the restaurant table and who then dies masturbating to them while undergoing erotic asphyxiation. David Carradine would spin kick in his grave.
Clayton is of course distressed to find the corpse of his son in such an unsavory situation. And he does what any parent would probably do – disguise the embarrassing death as a teen suicide, even going to the trouble of writing a suicide note. Unfortunately, the note is leaked to off the Internet, and in death the once despised Kyle becomes a James Dean like icon. In a twist not unlike a similar plot development in Atom Egoyan’s Adoration, Clayton exploits the interest in his son’s death to promote his own writing career. It begins innocently enough, as it probably did for “J. T. Leroy.” A thoughtful essay here, a poem there. But it develops into a full diary, forged by Clayton over a long weekend, a book that ends up on the bestseller list and lands Clayton a visit on a day time talk show. How can Clayton extricate himself from this dire situation? Like a Frank Capra hero, he makes a humiliating public confession, one that destroys his career and all the relationships he forged while operating under the ruse.
At first, I didn’t quite know what to make of World’s Greatest Dad. I saw it under certain distracting conditions, and on a disc whose playback seemed video-y and mis-formatted. Parts seemed good (the enjoyable satire of some of the students), parts seemed bad (the Goth girl’s laughter didn’t ring true, but was of course necessary for later plot mechanisms). Also, I am not the biggest Robin Williams fan in the world (though he turned out to be fine in the role). But as it happens, the film stuck with me like few others seen this year, probably because it seemed to strike deeply and uncompromisingly at an array of male fears and phobias.
For one thing, Dad confronts a little discussed minor aspect of American life: sometimes parents just don’t like the kids they’ve sired. It’s an issue that forms the basis for the popular 2003 novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver. In that tale, parents find that they have spawned a high school mass murderer. That’s an extreme slice of a probable, if only occasional, reality, that a parent can look at a child and wonder where they hell they came from. It is, of course, only one of the 10 million fears that parents have, but Goldthwait, who also wrote the script, mines with over-the-top nimbleness. Misanthropes welcome here.
For another, Goldthwait is the American poet of sexual humiliation. He evinces exquisitely honed gradations of embarrassment, frustration, and jealousy. Clayton’s co-teacher girlfriend has an inexplicable interest in him, but a supremely explicable if unstated interest in the African-American teacher, who is a single dad with a good con going, unconscious or not. There is a perfect moment when, at the nadir of Clayton’s public humiliation after confessing to the fraud, the girlfriend runs to Option No. 2 and embraces him while both shoot daggers at Clayton. A masochist couldn’t ask for a better set-up. It’s a moment worthy of those other masterpieces of sexual humiliation, Malice, The Palm Beach Story, Shampoo, and Blue Velvet.
Still, for all Dad’s occasional searing wit and tireless thumping on some of our deepest fears, the viewer still might wonder why American performers who otherwise appear to be successful prefer to dwell on failure and unhappiness and leave their protagonists with little if any hope at the end? Goldthwait has been a comic since he was 15, has been married (and divorced) with two children, and then dated Nikki Cox, his co-star on the sit-com Unhappily Ever After. Since then has had a seemingly successful career directing for television. For all intents and purposes, he has achieved a great deal. So then why does he mine childhood feelings and male neuroses? What does he get out of it and what are we supposed to apprehend?
If you thought about it long enough, you could posit the theory that comics distort the world. Think of Woody Allen. Way too many guys in the 1970s seeking a relationship took Allen’s comic persona as a role model, and operated under the delusion that women might actually like self-deprecating failures because such a male might seem honest. So while ordinary shlubs are flopping with chicks all over the country, the real life Woody Allen was dating models and actresses. In mocking the conventions of movie romance Allen unintentionally unleashed a new breed of male, programed to fail. Allen is neither the first nor the last. From Chaplin to Judd Apatow, comedians have trafficked in despair, yearning, failure. Comedies are usually, really, tragedies, often with grim or at least poignant endings. As genres, both tragedies and comedies deal in calamities, with tragedy, broadly speaking, focusing on the noble, and comedy on the quotidian. In Dad, though, Goldthwait has a weird, hybrid aim. He finds that true comedy, not just satire of current social conventions, is located in the deepest recesses of our primeval minds, in our obvious and shared but unstated fears, and treats a comic tale of ordinary people as if it is a high tragedy. Like the recent Observe and Report, World’s Greatest Dad is a comedy that isn’t really a comedy, but the marketers have to call it something. It’s an interesting experiment, if it is intentional (and not just my faulty interpretation), and shows ambitions far beyond . World’s Greatest Dad may not attract the cult following of Shakes the Clown, but it may will live on for those viewers who find it an unusually true comedy
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