Lance Clayton’s son is, in his own words, a douche. Slacker teen Kyle (Daryl Sabara) is disrespectful, foul-mouthed and ignorant, with furtive masturbation and a particularly unhealthy obsession with niche Internet porn his only apparent interests.
A high school teacher, sci-fi nerd and frustrated novelist as well as a longsuffering single parent, Lance (played with poignant restraint by Robin Williams) is a man whose life appears to have passed him by. His fickle younger girlfriend, Claire (Alexie Gilmore), is making eyes at fitter, younger and more successful fellow teacher, Mike (Henry Simmons), his repeated attempts to place a novel with a publisher result only in rejection slips, and his layabout son is quite possibly one of the most loathsome and unsympathetic teenage sons in the long history of cinema.
All that changes when Kyle accidentally chokes himself to death during a bout of autoerotic asphyxiation. Arriving home to find his son dead, a grief-stricken Lance hastily pens a fake suicide note in order to protect his reputation.
The frustrated novelist in him can’t resist adding the odd poetic flourish, however, and when the bogus letter is published on the Internet, a once reviled Kyle is posthumously beatified as a sensitive outsider hero.
Intoxicated by the sudden influx of reflected glory, Lance fakes an entire diary, whose heartfelt prose makes it an immediate hit. Suddenly, Claire is interested in him again, and students flock to his creative writing classes. But as wider fame beckons and huge publishing companies begin to circle with potentially lucrative deals to offer, Lance comes to realise the enormity of the cult of personality he’s unwittingly created.
On paper, World’s Greatest Dad sounds like a sub-Farrelly brothers comedy that makes crass jokes about taboo topics such as masturbation and suicide. But, while writer and director Bobcat Goldthwait doesn’t shy away from his premise’s potentially disturbing elements, neither does he make light of their weightier implications.
The moment where Williams arrives home to find his son dead is one of the most shocking, unexpectedly heart-wrenching scenes I’ve sat through all year, and after the sly laughs the movie invokes up to this point, comes as a powerful, sobering sucker punch.
A surprisingly intelligent and sharp satire, World’s Greatest Dad mercilessly sends up society’s capacity to venerate the dead, and how grief can be packaged, marketed and sold like any other commodity. Once a social outcast, Kyle is later regarded as a genius. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the population of his school hungrily hoover up any piece of personal information Lance can provide, no matter how ridiculous.
Williams is brilliant throughout, turning in a perfectly judged performance as a hopelessly flawed man, a failed author and rotten parent whose apparently selfless attempt to protect his late son’s modesty rapidly turns into an uncontrollable desire for fame and success. A million miles away from the mawkishness or ranting excess of his lesser movies, Williams’ performance here is easily his best in years.
Daryl Sabara’s turn as Williams’ loathsome son is similarly noteworthy, and he plays a difficult role with effortless, sleazy enthusiasm.
If World’s Greatest Dad has a weakness, it comes late on. Having set up an intricate and sublimely absurd web of lies, Goldthwait allows the plot to unravel a little too quickly to be satisfying, and the movie ends on an oddly light note that is at odds with the darkness felt elsewhere.
Its denouement aside, World’s Greatest Dad is an original, uncommonly brave comedy drama, and Goldthwait should be congratulated for approaching a spiky subject matter with sensitivity and unflinching honesty.
The film’s taboo premise may make it an absolute nightmare to market (its almost blank theatrical posters are certainly evidence of this), but World’s Greatest Dad is quite possibly one of the most thought-provoking, biting comedies you’ll see all year.