Movie Review: Ann Hornaday on Bobcat Goldthwait's 'World's Greatest Dad'

Bobcat Goldthwait, left, and Robin Williams put their heads together.
Bobcat Goldthwait, left, and Robin Williams put their heads together. (By Matt Sayles -- Associated Press)
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By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 4, 2009

The comedian Bobcat Goldthwait has forged a fascinating career as a Hollywood auteur, joining the rarefied ranks of Tod Browning and John Waters in creating a genre that might best be described as depraved humanism. His debut film, "Shakes the Clown," went to dark extremes to explore most people's instinctive aversion to creepy circus clowns. In the 2006 comedy "Sleeping Dogs Lie," Goldthwait somehow threaded a needle between bestiality jokes and surprisingly sincere moral inquiry.

With "World's Greatest Dad," Goldthwait continues his enterprise, indulging in vulgar, profane and otherwise perverted humor while getting at something deeper. His sometime supporting player Robin Williams takes center stage as Lance Clayton, a high school poetry teacher who nurtures dreams of becoming a great writer while being verbally abused by his surly, chronically sweaty 15-year-old son Kyle (Daryl Sabara of "Spy Kids" fame -- how fast they grow up!).

Kyle is a creep, obsessed with porn, sexual fetishes and describing everyone around him, especially his passive, obliging father, with a homophobic epithet. In fact, the first two-thirds of "World's Greatest Dad" are excruciating to watch, as Lance does his best to bond with Kyle, only to be cruelly rebuffed and put down, again and again.

Things aren't much better outside the home: Lance's girlfriend and fellow teacher Claire (Alexie Gilmore) is giving him mixed signals amid the baby talk and "Please don't be mad" pouts, while a buff, brilliant colleague named Mike (Henry Simmons) has just had his first story published in the New Yorker and is sitting awfully close to Claire in the lunchroom.

But then things take a sharp -- albeit not entirely unexpected -- turn, and "World's Greatest Dad" takes off into the mordant, hilarious and weirdly tender parody that Goldthwait has made his specialty. Suddenly able to create the reality he'd heretofore only dreamed of, Lance is faced with some of the same questions Goldthwait raised in "Sleeping Dogs Lie," about honesty and acceptance and whether doing the wrong thing is sometimes the right thing. Along the way, Goldthwait gets in some priceless digs at the maudlin world of therapy-tainment. ("We're so sorry for your loss, let's have a great show!" a TV producer says to a grieving character at one point.)

"World's Greatest Dad" presents Williams in the kind of dark, edgy character study he's been drawn to in recent years, with films such as "One Hour Photo" and "Death to Smoochy." He's tamped down his logorrheic, manic mannerisms and plays it straight, his blue eyes impassive, his mouth a grim fault line constantly on the verge of cracking open to release a lifetime's worth of invective, self-pity and anguish.

For filmgoers who prefer Williams's bleak side, "World's Greatest Dad" represents a welcome departure from such wholesome family fare as the "Night at the Museum" series, not to mention crass check-cashers like "License to Wed." Still, Goldthwait's sensibility is decidedly niche, appealing to viewers with a high threshold for verbal hostility, inky-black humor and brutally frank sexual discourse (often, in "World's Greatest Dad," delivered by kids whose voices have barely changed).

Goldthwait, who appears in a brief cameo, has steadily improved as a filmmaker, smoothing out what has been a sometimes ragged, episodic approach to storytelling. He's still more a writer than a director, with a visual approach geared toward simply showing people talking. But in the film's penultimate sequence, his slow, deliberate pacing suggests a willingness to explore the medium's more expressive potential. (That series of scenes might remind some viewers of the cult movie of teen despair, "Donnie Darko," whose writer-director Richard Kelly is a producer here.)

"World's Greatest Dad" might not be for everyone, but filmgoers tuned in to its particular, perverse frequency will find much to value in its bent sense of humor and compassion. As a filmmaker seeking to master the art of satire without cynicism, Bobcat Goldthwait might be one sick puppy -- but he's also the sweetest one we've got.

World's Greatest Dad (99 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is rated R for profanity, crude and sexual content, some drug use and disturbing images.

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