With a manipulative trailer that doesn't detail what the movie is actually about and a fluffy title that makes it seem much more happy-go-lucky than it really is, World's Greatest Dad has strengths and weaknesses that go beyond simple breakdowns of certain elements of the film. No, what makes or breaks this movie is the premise (that is clearly not defined in the trailer) and the execution of it. Spoilers are simply unavoidable, so take caution before reading.
The story to World's Greatest Dad is surprisingly dark and intricate, something you may not expect from a Robin Williams movie directed by Bobcat Goldthwait (yes, that Bobcat Goldthwait), but indeed it is. Williams plays Lance Clayton, a poetry teacher and struggling writer who has written everything from novels to children's stories, but has never been published. When we meet him, we find he is working on his fifth novel and he has promised himself that if it doesn't make it to print, he'd give up forever. He has a son maked Kyle (Daryl Sabara), a homophobic, perverted, hateful kid who has only one friend, Andrew (Evan Martin), and hardly even likes him. He looks down on everybody, including his father who is becoming increasingly annoyed with his bad conduct in school and hostile behavior towards others, though he still does everything he can to make him happy.
One night, Lance walks in on Kyle masturbating through asphyxiation, cutting off oxygen to his brain until the point of ejaculation. Lance explains to Kyle how dangerous it is and how he could kill himself in the process, to which Kyle scoffs at him and calls him a "fag." Meanwhile, Lance is courting a fellow teacher, Claire (Alexie Gilmore), and after dropping her off one night and rushing home to join his son, he finds Kyle dead, accidentally killing himself despite his father's warnings. Perhaps through shame, Lance makes it look like a suicide, stringing Kyle up by his neck in his closet and typing up a false suicide note, which is later published in the school newspaper where Kyle's classmates latch onto it, allowing Lance to capitalize on his death. His previously desolate poetry class is now populated with students, his love life heats up, and he finally finds himself with publishing opportunities, though it is of Kyle's fabricated diary that Lance has passed off as his son's.
This is a dark, dark movie and the trick to making a successful black comedy is somehow making the audience feel a certain way and generating laughs out of things that one normally wouldn't laugh at. World's Greatest Dad works because, as terrible as it may sound, you end up hating Kyle. The kid is a scumbag, a disgusting, vile waste of life with zero respect for anybody around him, yelling sexual obscenities at passers-by and making his father's life a living hell, despite Lance's best efforts to love him, a feat I doubt many could stomach. Though you initially feel bad for Lance when watching him break down in tears after his son's death, you, as well as him, quickly realize how much better his life will be now that he's gone. It's a shocking thing to say, but that's why the movie works. I suspect the intention of Goldthwait (who also wrote it) was for the audience to feel this way. It makes you feel dirty for feeling gladness over this kid's demise. It's actually quite brilliant.
And that's why you find yourself laughing at scenes you wouldn't otherwise laugh at. Shortly after Kyle's passing, Lance comes across a row of sexually explicit magazines on a street corner, begins to think of his dead son who was obsessed with any and all forms of pornography and begins to sob uncontrollably while a bystander looks at him puzzlingly. He's mourning the death of his son, but you find yourself giggling. In reality, this isn't funny, but in the movie where the wonderful combination of drama and dark humor mix so effectively, it is.
The impressive blend of two polar opposite tones isn't the film's problem, though. It's the story that takes a turn for the worse. The first hour or so is superbly crafted, but then it begins to fall apart through nonsensical plot turns. It felt like Goldthwait came up with an excellent premise and started strong out of the gate, but then didn't know where to go with it, taking its authenticity and shattering it with an exaggerated aftermath of Lance's actions. What happens is that every student in school becomes inspired by Kyle's fake suicide note and the halls become adorned with Kyle paraphernalia. Inspirational signs and posters cover the walls, shirts become emblazoned with pictures of Kyle (with one reading, "WWKD") and the ones without his picture are covered with buttons in honor of him. One student carves the name "Kyle" in her arm so as to make an everlasting scar, another gets a pictorial tattoo of his ugly mug, and another is so inspired that he quits his dependency on drugs. They all lift him up as a fallen idol and it becomes a bit much.
Tack onto this a ridiculous ending where Lance tells everybody what he did without consequence and then books it through the halls tearing off his clothes in slow motion (to the tune of David Bowie's "Under Pressure" no less--not very subtle). It's absolutely absurd, intentionally or unintentionally I'm not sure, but stupid nonetheless. In fact, it was so stupid I actually kind of enjoyed it, laughing the hardest I had laughed the whole movie. The real problem is that this ending is too abrupt, completely throwing out the notion that he might get caught, as one of his colleagues is shown studying Kyle's death reports throughout the film, seemingly getting closer to the truth. But that doesn't happen. It just ends.
The flick, perhaps purposely so, reminded me of James Frey's, "A Million Little Pieces," the book that garnered lots of controversy after the discovery that much of its supposed true story was actually fake. In the movie, Lance appears on a similar daytime talk show to promote Kyle's made up journal and like "A Million Little Pieces," lots of people become affected by it. After reading it, one student explains to Lance that his father was abusive and he was going to kill himself, but Kyle's inspirational words saved his life. This raises an interesting question. Lance may be wrongfully using his son's death for his own gain, but he's also helping many others in the process. How far is too far? Where do you draw the line?
World's Greatest Dad never really gives you a clear answer to those questions and may not even intend to bring them up at all. Nevertheless, it is a decidedly thought provoking film that is spearheaded by Robin Williams' outstanding performance. He's a fine actor when given the chance to be dramatic (as seen in One Hour Photo), and his talent for drama, as well as comedy, shine through here. Still, the movie can't keep up with his delightful dexterity. The unbelievable zig zags the story eventually takes don't bode well with the events antecedent to them, making this one of the most uenven flicks I've seen since Hancock, though to be fair, it still fares much better than that film.
World's Greatest Dad isn't a laugh riot and it exhaustingly collapses in the end, but it's unlike anything I've seen in recent memory, and that's saying something.
World's Greatest Dad receives 3.5/5