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Nicholas Thurkettle
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Nicholas Thurkettle [userpic]
MOVIE REVIEW - World's Greatest Dad

World’s Greatest Dad
Director
: Bobcat Goldthwait
Writer: Bobcat Goldthwait
Producers: Howard Gertler, Ted Hamm, Richard Kelly, Sean McKittrick, Tim Perell
Stars: Robin Williams, Daryl Sabara, Alexie Gilmore, Henry Simmons, Evan Martin, Tony V., Mitzi McCall


It struck me, during the endless paroxysms of media triggered by the death of Michael Jackson, how so many of the people on camera were essentially congratulating themselves over feeling so deeply about his demise. I am equally sure they were congratulating themselves on their taste when they bought his albums, and congratulating themselves on their virtue when, during his life, they hounded, condemned, and insulted him.

There is a breed of comedian – and I am thinking of people like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin – who realize a secret to what they do. Many become joke tellers to be liked, but what they don’t understand is that they still aren’t liked, the audience just likes themselves for laughing. The good comedian recalls he is still a misfit, and the audience is always ready to chase him into a burning windmill if he should cease to entertain; or worse still, tell them the real truth about themselves.

“Bobcat” Goldthwait has successfully lurked around the entertainment industry, prodding peoples’ comfort zones and stirring up laughs at the edge of the spotlight, for well over two decades. He acted in three Police Academy movies, opened for Nirvana (imagine trying to get laughs out of that crowd), directed over 200 episodes of Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night show, and once set Jay Leno’s Tonight Show guest chair on fire. You learn a few things about audiences in a career like that, and I think those lessons live in the heart of World’s Greatest Dad, a movie about a lie that brings shallow people ecstasy, and the liar who hates himself for pleasing them.

This is a movie that proves you can be both low-key and unsubtle. Its arguments are crude and its caricatures are unsparing. And yet its wickedness is well-aimed; Goldthwait has got hold of a knife, he buries it in his target, and he intends to twist it. This is his third feature as a writer/director – his first, 1991’s Shakes the Clown, was dubbed “The ‘Citizen Kane’ of alcoholic clown movies.” If he was going to decide wider appeal was worth putting away bad taste, he would have done it by now. But gags about stripping old ladies, autoerotic asphyxiation, and the music of Bruce Hornsby are not the content of World’s Greatest Dad, they are simply its lexicon.

What the movie is about is the quiet misery of poetry teacher and single father Lance Clayton (Robin Williams). He has struggled into late middle age trying to publish a novel, get high school students to care about poetry, and raise a son. His biggest triumph as a writer has been a couple of greeting cards, and his son Kyle (Daryl Sabara) is, like so many real American teenagers, an imperviously obnoxious, attention-deficit pervert. And the school is considering whether or not to drop the poetry class.

Williams has a chance to play in a different key in this movie by not portraying a goof or a psychopath, but a small, smiling man who is suffering. Watch him give himself over to a scene where Lance is overwhelmed by tears when staring at, of all things, a rack of porno magazines.

That scene will make more sense should you see the movie, but know that a drastic turn of fate happens which I will not reveal. Lance’s reaction to it, and the events triggered by his reaction, depends entirely on what we have learned about him up to that point in the movie. It is about what he decides, in a desperate moment, is the right thing to do, and how it appears to get him everything he has ever been taught to think is right to want; except that he knows it is all based on a lie. It was a lie of mercy, a lie told out of love that those lied to themselves love; but nonetheless, a lie.

And so the film becomes about the ruthless strain inflicted by success. He is suddenly receiving attention, adoration, sympathy, sex, fame, and praise for his writing, which any writer will tell you beats all those prior things. The truth could cost him these gains; not because he is not a well-intentioned man, not because he is not a good writer, but because he will be taking away the lie which all his new friends have used for their gratification. It will mean he will belong in loneliness, spending his nights eating pot brownies and watching zombie movies with his old neighbor (Mitzi McCall) whose apartment is filled with stacks of newspapers.

It is not an elegant movie in the slightest; it feels cramped by its budget, and Goldthwait doesn’t achieve the range of feelings put within reach by his script. Yet Williams invests a lot of detail into his central role. And Goldthwait has created a mean but fascinating character in Lance’s sometimes-girlfriend Claire (Alexie Gilmore), whose attention is so simple to draw away, and yet who can look you in the eyes and promise that you are the one she really cares about. She can be so dainty about the bad, obvious lies she tells; she knows on some non-calculating level that her cuteness will mortar the lies together for any guy desperate to hold on to her. Unapologetic awfulness is not a rare trait in movie characters, and yet there is something especially insidious in the sweet lack of self-awareness with which Claire goes about it.

It adds up to a lot of laughs, many more than in much of the recent bigger-budget fare in which Williams is overtly “funny”. But this is because it was crafted by a good comedian who has translated his process into filmmaking. World’s Greatest Dad understands that not everyone needs to laugh at every joke, not everyone even needs to be comfortable with every joke. What they do need is to be told that fate is cruel, karma is malfunctioning, and we’re surrounded by hypocrites, assholes, and masturbators. And that’s very true, and very funny. But insist to your audience that none of them are excused from those labels, and watch the majority of them start to turn on you…

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