World’s Greatest Dad is the type of satirical black comedy not meant to appeal to mainstream audiences — at least, not for the most part. It probably had even less of a chance of gaining widespread acceptance in its first draft, but it’s still more a film geared toward a certain audience. That type of audience is one that is cynical about the majority of people, particularly those who deify the dead after feeling the complete opposite when the deceased were, in fact, living.
Robin Williams once again plays a poetry teacher in the film. He’s Lance Clayton, teacher of the least popular English elective, one which faces the possibility of being cut if attendance doesn’t improve. He’s having a fling with another teacher, Claire (Alexie Gilmore), although they keep that a secret from everyone else in the entire world. Why? Because it allows Claire to hang out with a fellow teacher, Mike (Henry Simmons), rousing suspicion in Lance, especially when Claire blows off dates for random and increasingly crazy reasons.
Lance, the soft-spoken, soul-of-a-poet man, has a lousy son, Kyle (Daryl Sabara). Calling this kid a jerk would be an understatement. He is rude to everyone, including his supposed friend, Andrew (Evan Martin), and is the type of person who shouldn’t be allowed out of the house. The home is where he dies, after the first half hour of the picture, so perhaps a mental facility is a better idea. Autoerotic asphyxiation is the cause of death, although Lance, not wanting to cause further embarrassment for either member of the family, frames it as a suicide, note and all.
Imagine the surprise he gets when that note gets leaked to the school, and before you know it, everyone is idolizing the student that they hated not just a few days ago. Oh, and they’re also praising the writing of the note, despite Lance having several failed attempts at getting a novel to be accepted by publishers. Things begin spiraling out of control from here, and the film’s targets become even more clear.
You can liken it to the death of Michael Jackson, which makes the timing of World’s Greatest Dad‘s release perfect (he died in June; the film was released in August). Jackson was the butt-end of jokes for years prior to his death, but not only a day after, he was held up in a near-perfect light. All because he died. People who do that are the ones that Bob Goldthwait, writer and director, is taking aim at. And if he can get in some commentary regarding how difficult it is to become a writer that’s a bonus.
The first half-hour of the film doesn’t tell you that whatsoever. All it does is set the stage for the characters, but not the situation they’re soon going to find themselves in. It doesn’t convey tone or meaning, either, and does a poor job of involving us. There’s not much of a hook to World’s Greatest Dad, and the beginning does not at all prepare you for what you’re about to see. All it does is give us archetypes — depressed dad, jerk son, love interest — some of whom we’ll have to spend some more time with, and others that disappear.
The rest of the film doesn’t exactly develop these characters as it does poke fun at many potential members of the audience. Lance doesn’t stop being a depressed, lonely man — he just finds a medium in which to express himself: Kyle’s “journals,” which he’s writing after his son’s death, presumably filling them with his own thoughts. As the situation escalates, it’s kind of fun to watch the film go over-the-top with its portrayal of the worship that comes to Kyle, but it eventually grows tiresome when you find out that this is pretty much the only thing on its mind.
It’s still quite funny, and charming and occasionally sad in its own way. After Kyle dies, Robin Williams gets a few touching scenes, reminding us once again that when he goes for drama and not comedy, he is effective. He’s good at deadpan, too, which is the most common style of delivery that he uses in World’s Greatest Dad. You’ll have some points where you’ll laugh — and even more when you’ll feel bad about even thinking about laughing — and you might just feel sad, too.
The latter satire would not work if not for Daryl Sabara’s performance as the most unlikable kid ever. He has to be so despicable that I can only imagine how unenjoyable the filming of his scenes would be. He pulls it off, though, which allows us to laugh even more at how his character is worshiped just days after his demise. It allows the film to make its main point. The other characters, all starry-eyed as most of them have to be, are fine, but play archetypes or obsessed fans — sometimes both.
World’s Greatest Dad is effective at doing what it wants to. It makes a point, sticks with it through to almost the very end, and while it chickens out to avoid being too dark and cynical, it still manages to hammer its ideas home in a way that will keep them in your head. It has two effective lead performers in Robin Williams and Daryl Sabara — playing polar opposites — and it will make you feel a whole range of emotions, even though it fails to hook you in, which may make it hard to get into for many viewers. It’s worth watching, though, especially if you’re a fan of black comedy.