Wednesday, May 6, 2009

World's Greatest Dad [IFFBoston Closing Night]

Dir. Bobcat Goldthwait

Whenever I stumble upon a good dark comedy, I'm cheered up for a number of reasons. I'm always happy to be reassured that there are people out there with a sick sense of humor not afraid to alienate some people in the pursuit of a laugh. And if we're just talking about the good ones, there's usually some meaty reason behind the darkness - a satirical message that elevates the film into the kind of material worthy of discussion and dissection. This leads to a tip of the hat to the investors and talent out there that are willing to make a picture with even less of a chance to make back their money than usual. Let me know if you can point your finger at a dark comedy that became a box office sensation, because even when Heathers came out in 1989 it was largely ignored until it came out on home video. I point to Heathers not only because in the last 20 or so years (holy crap!) I can't think of a better example of a well done, nasty dark comedy that has been so widely embraced by a generation but also because World's Greatest Dad bears more than a passing resemblance to it. But hey, it has been 20 years (what the-?!) now and after letting World's Greatest Dad play around in my head for a while now, I have nothing but appreciation for Bobcat Goldthwait and his own pitch black look at assholes turning into angels and life after a death in the high school world.

What shouldn't come as too much of a surprise is that when called upon, and given the right material, Robin Williams can be oddly affecting. Like all great clowns there's a vulnerability too him that, when called up to the surface, can quickly disarm even the most jaded of audience members. He's made a career of being the spazzy hairball prone to talking in a funny voice but when you see him in boring films like The Night Listener or Insomnia, you can sense that he's primed to enter into a Bill Murray phase if he could just grab the right material or make better judgement calls. He comes damn close to getting that perfect role in World's Greatest Dad. He stars as a failed writer and single father who teaches a high school poetry class and wonders if he should take one last shot at writing glory. On top of his lack of success with getting published, his son is a crass degenerate, his girlfriend doesn't want to go public with their relationship and no one even wants to take his class - and those that do don't take it the least bit seriously. He almost looses it early on during a lunch break when a popular teacher and romantic rival announces that he got published in The New Yorker. Then, just as Williams is about to take the next step in his relationship with his skittish girlfriend, his son pulls a Michael Hutchence. In an effort to save himself and his son from embarrassment, he alters the scene to make it look a suicide - going so far as to write a devastating suicide note which, when leaked to the public, transforms his despicable son into a brooding hero. Yeah, it's that kind of comedy.

Robin Williams deserves a fair amount of credit for making this dark path a fun one to travel -- he's our rock, however unstable that rock may be -- but what sets the movie apart is Bobcat Goldthwait. He doesn't have much in the way of visual flair but his sensibility is singular. In creating a story about a floundering writer who comes to peace with life through his son's accidental death, Goldthwait has made one hell of a funny movie but even more surprising is how honest and personal it feels. Things turn even darker, and funny, as Williams begins to compose an entire imaginary journal of his dead son's emo musings that becomes a big hit at the high school and lands him on an Oprah-type show. Suddenly it's not just the high school that thinks his ignorant, piggish son was actually an intelligent, soulful person; and once publishers start talking about allowing him to publish his own work if he allows them to publish the fake journal, it becomes a countdown to how long he can keep the lie going before he unravels. There's a running joke of his dead son's picture haunting him at every turn (see pic). It's a ridiculous photograph of the kid and its absurdity gives the joke an amazing longevity. Each time you see it you think, that has to be the last time I'll laugh at that picture - but it is always perfectly timed and it makes you feel like his son is in on the joke, laughing along and even getting a kick out of his father's dilemma from beyond the grave.

Williams does great work with the exasperated, soul crushing scenes (especially during the talk show segment) where he's holding on by the thinnest of threads while the world refuses to cut him a break. It's in other scenes where he tends to come off as a little uncomfortable with the roll. This could have to do with me simply having slight problems buying Williams in the doting, shy father role or his character simply being given little opportunity in the story to feel comfortable, but from the sound of how the production went, I have a feeling Williams could use stronger direction than Goldthwait was willing or able to give. From what he said during the Q&A after the film, Goldthwait and Williams had a collaborative experience on the film - sometimes working their way through a scene by letting Williams try different things to figure out what works for him and the story and how it should play. The film carries that uncertainty with it -- it takes a bit of time for it to find a comfortable tone, but once the very bad mistake happens it never looks back and escalates to some of the funniest scenes in recent memory. The climactic scene with teachers and students (and one jaw dropper of a cameo) gathered together to witness the inevitable unraveling is a better, more satisfying pay-off than you could hope for.

There aren't many unique and meaningful comedic voices in cinema today but, however odd it may sound, Bobcat Goldthwait is one of those voices. His movies are personal, they have a vision and although they are dark, they never stray into being mean spirited. In a way, he's just as approachable as Judd Apatow. While Robin Williams has lost much of his audience draw over the years, I think Goldthwait is one bankable star away from breaking big. When that day comes I'll be a happy man because that means we'll be one step closer to Shakes the Clown 2 -- that film needs a decent budget.

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