Cinophile: World's Greatest Dad

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As Robin Williams’ shocking death sank in, many theories arose about why he chose to take his own life. Inevitably topics like inner demons and the tears of a clown would surface, leading us to ponder who the real Robin Williams was. Consequently his darker films have attracted more attention. Did movies like Insomnia and One Hour Photo tell us a little more about the morbid side of his genius?

Well, that is impossible to answer. Williams’ legacy is captured in a lot of different films – was the disturbed homeless man he played in The Fisher King a reflection of him? I doubt it. Williams was, above all things, an excellent performer and a dedicated actor – regardless of where he drew his inspiration from.

But sticking briefly to the theme that funny waters run dark, Bobcat Goldthwait is another comedian once known for his outlandish characters – probably the best known is Zed, his manic, screeching character in the Police Academy movies. In recent years Goldthwait has made a new career as a director of independent movies. None of these are slapstick comedies. Though they share a sense of humour, it’s dry and cynical. As a director Goldthwait appears to be a very contemplative and serious man. And together he and Williams, who was a close friend, made the darkest movie of either of their careers.

Williams appears as Lance, an aspirational writer, middle-aged school teacher and single parent. His life is not great, but it has its bright moments. Still, Lance can be melancholy and his relationship with his teenage son, Kyle, is really bad. This has a lot to do with Kyle’s attitude – the guy is a total ass. Still, Lance tries to reach his son, but is too feeble to really cut through Kyle’s total aggression.

This sounds like a standard father-and-son drama, but Goldthwait has other plans. Roughly halfway through the movie Kyle dies and his dad is forced to make it look like a suicide. This includes a carefully penned suicide note, intended to complete the illusion. But a mishap causes the letter to be published and it causes a sensation – completely redeeming Kyle. The problem is, of course, that his dad wrote it. Kyle takes on a type of spiritual celebrity and his dad starts to keep the lie alive as a way to deal with his grief. But soon he starts to vicariously live his own ambitions for fame and creativity through this myth that he perpetuates.

This absurd situation creates a lot of the movie’s funny moments. But despite being a dark comedy, World’s Greatest Dad is a mean film on so many levels (much meaner than the sunny trailer below suggests). Williams’ other dark characters tended to be deeply dysfunctional. But here his character is just meek and instead surrounded by the dysfunctional nature of people: hypocrisy, aggression, judgement, manipulation, superficiality… the movie gives us a look at these and other sins.

Yet it doesn’t cast them as negatives. Instead the verdict is the world can be a profoundly unfair place, but we sometimes contribute to the undeserved things that happen to us. Perhaps the movie says that in a world where everyone else seems happier than you, if even a twisted sort of happiness comes your way, wouldn’t you grab it too?

This is made all the more emphatic with the tragedy of Williams’ suicide. You can read a lot into his role here, though as said earlier that would be a insult to his craft. World’s Greatest Dad was easily Robin Williams’ best non-comedic role, completely stripped from the zest his dramatic characters liked to portray or the shackles of dysfunction his creepy portrayals had.

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Comparisons have been drawn to Rushmore, Wes Anderson’s debut movie. Anticipating this comparison, Bobcat Goldthwait gave the character of the principal the surname ‘Anderson’. The movie is partially inspired by The Kinks’ 1975 concept album Schoolboys in Disgrace.
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Daryl Sabara, who plays the awful son Kyle, arrived at the audition and went on to be really terrible to everyone – even offending Goldthwait. But the director made enquiries afterwards and people told him Sabara was a really nice guy. It was all just method acting and he was cast in the role. Goldthwait referred to him as a “mini Gary Oldman”.
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World’s Greatest Dad was one of the biggest contributors to the memes that circulated after Williams’ death. Both the quote about being alone and the clip of him talking on television about suicide are from this movie.
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Williams, who was a close friend of Bobcat Goldthwait, initially became involved to play the character of the school principal, so to boost financing, but after reading the script he asked to play the father. The lead was originally written with Philip Seymour Hoffman in mind, who would die from an overdose a few months before Robin Williams’ suicide.

Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.

Last Updated: August 18, 2014

James

A total movie glutton, nothing is too bad or too obscure to watch, unless it's something like The Human Centipede. If you enjoyed that, there is something wrong with you. But bless you anyway - even video nasties need love...

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