In Theaters: World's Greatest Dad
Watching World's Greatest Dad is like sucking on a candy-coated battery, one fully charged with angst and anguish and unrelenting bitterness that periodically gives way to one of the year's sweetest, sincerest character dramas. And at least until a gang of careless reviewers and journalists spoiled its central plot point after its Sundance premiere, it was even one of the year's most shocking films.
That one-time secret has since been mainstreamed and disseminated and digested a million times, almost to the point of gimmickry -- an unwitting affirmation of writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait's critiques of media and opportunism. It was also a bit of a drag for me, who enjoyed World's Greatest Dad for a lot more than just one merciless dip into subversion. So if you know why frustrated single father Lance Clayton (a superb Robin Williams) gets a new lease on creativity, life and love in the film's second act, then great. If you don't, then trust me: This will be a better movie for it, and I won't endanger that experience here.
Anyway, there's plenty more to discuss about Dad, which introduces us to Lance in the throes of a mid-life crisis. He's a high-school poetry teacher whose class may be slashed for underenrollment, no one will publish his novels, his peer and girlfriend (Alexie Glmore) flirts openly with another, young instructor, and his 15-year-old son Kyle (Daryl Sabara) is an acid-tongued troglodyte boor. As Kyle, Spy Kids alum Sabara couldn't really be more repellent if he tried, from the nasal inflection of his gripes (and oh, does he gripe) to that perma-furrowed brow pointing the viewer to a frame coiled with ennui. Emotionally incapable of reciprocating his father's support, Kyle instead lashes out for its own sake, locking Lance in a vacuum from which he'll soon be liberated in a way he couldn't have imagined.
Or make that "wouldn't want to have imagined." Except maybe you would; Goldthwait's films permit pretty much anything, for better or worse. His previous, more on-the-nose parable Sleeping Dogs Lie, explored a similar dynamic in which the deepest secret of a woman's sexual past haunts her relationship with Mr. Right. Here, Lance acquires a secret of his own, which itself acquires some heady capital that underwrites both his literary resurgence and a renewed self-respect. Williams kills with the material: Having spent so much of the set-up earning the viewer's pity, he and Goldthwait exhaust it slivers at a time until the viewer, too, is somehow implicated.
But if everything is allowed, can it be equally forgiven? Again to Goldthwait's credit, that's the tricky philosophical terrain where World's Greatest Dad strands you. Entire horror franchises have been built around butchers with sturdier consciences than Lance Clayton's, yet Williams sneaks through those emotional loopholes with irresistible clarity and charm. And anyway, how can he be the monster with bloodthirsty Kyle stalking and roaring through his life? ("I'd like him more if he were a zombie," Lance actually tells one neighbor who likens his son to the undead.)
Williams and Goldthwait themselves have been friends for the better part of 25 years, and the nuanced, pitch-black comedy on hand in World's Greatest Dad shamelessly and brilliantly mines their rapport. When Williams stumbles through a few clumsy paces in the early phase of Lance's renaissance, Goldthwait, Gilmore and newcomer Evan Martin carry him with chops and sympathy. Williams returns the favor during Goldthwait's flailing, batshit climax (also not worth spoiling), picking him up with gutsy, literally naked brio. It could be the most romantic thing you see all year, or you may smack the outer limits of unconditional love so hard it leaves a bruise. Either way, like it or not, you'll feel it in the morning.