Lance Clayton and his son Kyle go to the same school; Lance as a teacher and Kyle as a student, naturally. Lance is having very little success as a writer, plodding through another novel that may never get published. Kyle is not much like his father and seems more fixated on video games and pornography. He is antagonistic, homophobic, sexist and, would you believe, not particularly well liked by his peers. Lance is at his wit’s end as to what to do about his son, but Kyle’s sexual extremes catch up with him as he accidentally kills himself from autoerotic asphyxiation. Whoopsie daisy? To save his son from the embarrassment of having died in such an unflattering way, Lance stages the body to look like he hung himself and writes a fake suicide note to save some face. However, the note is perhaps too well written and when it somehow leaks to the students and staff at the school, everyone finds the fake Kyle to be strangely complex and deep compared to how he acted in real life.
World’s Greatest Dad is written and directed by comedian Bobcat Goldthwait, who was fairly well known in comedies of the 80’s, including several of the Police Academy movies and, my personal favourite role of his, Elliot Loudermilk in the Bill Murray Christmas comedy, Scrooged. Nowadays, he works mostly behind the camera, working his way through television and onto feature films. This shows him not just as a comedic actor with a goofy, gimmick voice, but a legitimate talent with enough skill to make his vision come to life. His script isn’t perfect, as at times it seems a little heavy handed and forced, particularly in scenes when portraying Kyle and his perversions, but maybe I just wasn’t hanging out with that breed of teenager when I was in high school. Still, it often hits a really nice blend of realism and dark comedy, which is a tricky thing to balance.
Where World’s Greatest Dad falls short is in its unfocused thematic message. Is the problem in Lance’s lie or everyone else’s unwillingness to connect with the living? It feels like an anti-suicide message, but the point is also that there was no actual purposeful suicide. It seems like a story about the desensitization and extremes of teen sexuality, but that angle is dropped once Kyle dies. The story gets told well enough that it makes sense, but the deeper issues are convoluted. That leaves us with a film where it’s competent, but without a deeply considered enough script that greatness evades its grasp. But it tries, and individually the concepts succeed.
And you know, complaints wise, if you look at my problems with this film a little differently, it doesn’t feel like a problem so much. Frankly, I would rather have a comedy that tries to accomplish too much and not succeed completely, than have a comedy that is shallow and pointless. And hey, it happens to be funny too, so it succeeds on that very important level. Laughing at sadness and frustration is an age old pastime that I wouldn’t want to give up. It’s therapeutic, if nothing else.
There is a strange discomfort watching this film with the discussions of suicide within, particularly knowing how Robin Williams’ life came to an end. It becomes the elephant in the room. But in a strange way, it adds to the emotional complexities of the discussion. It adds a sadness, but legitimacy to what they have to say; that it’s a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Or maybe because Williams says it in the movie, that it’s not that simple. But this can’t be explored in the movie because that’s not what the movie was intended to be. That’s simply a strange layer added from real life
Goldthwait and Williams made a great team. We get one of the best performances of Williams’ career, with his comedy more understated and his emotional complexities at the forefront. That’s not saying that he’s overacting; the complexities are real in how buried they are. Lance is burdened with the truth of Kyle’s death. And while his original intent was to save face for Kyle, it soon became a much more selfish act for Lance. He was finally getting recognition for his writing and indirectly hailed for his genius. But even then, perhaps his original intent was not entirely for Kyle’s benefit either. He felt responsible for Kyle’s attitude and felt a failure as a parent. The embarrassing end only compounded that sense of failure.
Perhaps the film asks the question of what success is and at what price are we willing to pursue it. And how important is the truth? Why did it hurt so much if Kyle was remembered in fondness and Lance was finally an accomplished writer? The film challenges our notion of success and suggests that perhaps it is a false claim if not reached through an honest route. And I can stand behind that idea; if you don’t have integrity, what have you got?