World’s Greatest Dad is a fucked up movie. I’m not one of those people who throws around accusations like that lightly. “That movie was faintly unusual bro holy fuck.” World’s Greatest Dad is a thoroughly, intentionally disturbing, upsetting and hilarious movie. It’s the blackest of black comedy. Pitch black through and through. I’d heard about it ages ago, but decided to check it out after listening to a disturbing quantity of the podcast Harmontown. The movie’s director, Bobcat Goldthwait, was an occasional guest on the podcast, and I found him incredibly compelling. I watched some of his stand-up afterwards, and thought the central conceit – the idea that it’s a typical routine told by a crazy person – pretty funny. World’s Greatest Dad felt like a good starting place, if only because it starred the brilliant Robin Williams.
The movie is, in a grander sense, about someone who does something bad and is only rewarded for it. In a more specific sense it’s about Robin Williams as Lance, a failed writer, high-school teacher, and father. Lance’s son, Kyle, is a piece of shit. He’s manically obsessed with sex, spending all his free time watching porn and making lurid comments about female students and generally being a fairly disgusting dude. He’s dumb enough that the school’s principal thinks he probably needs to be in a special school equipped to deal with him. He has one friend and he and his dad constantly clash. Then he dies. Specifically he accidentally asphyxiates himself while masturbating. Lance poses his son’s body to make it look like a suicide, writes a letter, and calls the police.
And then everything goes Lance’s way. He becomes a mini-celebrity at the school. Students suddenly start taking his previously unpopular poetry class, and everyone collectively decides to retroactively create a narrative about their relationship to Kyle. Students are mainly positively affected by this, continually coming to healthy personal realizations in the wake of this tragedy. There is, naturally, a snowball effect. The lies get deeper. But so do the rewards.
Which is really what makes the movie black comedy. Sure there are scenes like the one where the grieving Lance has to zip up his deceased son’s pants, but the movie’s world is truly dark because it rewards Lance throughout. He does something that seems innocuous enough at first, but then gets more and more morally shady, and the universe just rewards him. That deep-seated notion is pretty queasy. A good guy does something bad, something guilt-causing, and only faces self-inflicted punishment.
We also can’t help but like Lance. Which is in no small part Robin Williams fault, but the character is clearly sympathetic. He’s misguided, but well intentioned. He just wants to be a writer and happy. He wants what everyone wants really. His opening monologue even specifies that he’s “always dreamed of being a famous author, of creating an important work something that connected with people and helped them as they suffered through the human condition. Also something that made a shitload of cash.”
The movie is pretty well directed too. There’s a lot about it that reads as a first-time attempt (which isn’t true). Maybe it’s just Bobcat’s continual urge to fill the movie with a roster of references to great classic films. Which I was onboard with, he has good taste. There’s a sense of experimentation, of trying things out. Of wanting to direct to the point of maybe missing the mark of cohesiveness/effectiveness occasionally. But that’s okay. The missteps are few and far between. Bobcat Goldthwait doesn’t make more odd choices than, say, Spike Lee in The Inside Man. It just feels like the choices come from a different place.
Perhaps the most interesting choice on display in World’s Greatest Dad is just how involving the first half an hour is. Black comedy doesn’t normally go hand-in-hand with emotional rawness. As a genre, it’s generally aided by a sense of detachment. It’s easier to find horrifying things funny if you don’t really care about the characters or the outcome in any honest way (see Dr. Strangelove). In World’s Greatest Dad you really do care about the characters, especially in the first portion of the film. It’s pretty upsetting when Kyle dies, upsetting enough that some of the humour doesn’t quite land. It’s a disconcerting blend, and I’m still not quite sure where I landed on it. The movie was so good; yet just fell short of that emotional note I look for as the marker of a true masterpiece.
The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as an example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.
Touched by a masterpiece, a person begins to hear in himself that same call of truth which prompted the artist to his creative act. When the link is established between the work and its beholder, the latter experiences a sublime, purging trauma. Within that aura which unites masterpieces and audience, the best sides of our souls are made known, and we long for them to be freed. In those moments we recognize and discover ourselves, the unfathomable depths of our own potential, and the furthest reaches of our emotions.
The mixture of emotive filmmaking and detached filmmaking is muddying. It sorta chums up the water, makes it hard to hit that cleansing cathartic note I feel the movie skirts.
The problem is perhaps exacerbated by the ending, which, generally, is a happy one. There’s something so fascinatingly out-of-place about a happy conclusion to a movie this dark and depraved. What actually saves it is how well executed the happy ending is. The script and the direction make it feel earned in a technical sense, while the rest of the film’s tone makes it feel dishonest. It’s a weird mix. A perfectly realized bad idea, maybe?
Aside from these few flaws I legitimately think World’s Greatest Dad is a brilliant movie. I look forward to watching more of Bobcat Goldthwait’s work.