By Scott Weinberg (reprint from Sundance Film Festival 2009)
You hear it in lots of (usually sad) movies, and I'd say it's probably one of the truest things ever spoken: "There's nothing more tragic than having to bury your own child." But, just for the sake of argument, let's pretend -- for just a second -- that (in one specific case) it wouldn't be the end of the world. As a matter of fact, let's further pretend that the death of a child could somehow lead to several wonderful and life-changing results.
Sick, I know, but that's one of the ideas that runs through the twisted-yet-amusing dark comedy World's Greatest Dad. Written and directed by the consistently unpredictable Bob Goldthwait (he also gave us the similarly strange Shakes the Clown and Stay), and anchored by an unexpectedly strong Robin Williams performance, World's Greatest Dad is indeed about a high school poetry teacher who finds his life blossoming after his son accidentally commits suicide.
It's important to note that 16-year-old Kyle is one of the most stunningly unpleasant (and hilariously profane) teenagers ever conceived, because this is how we're able to laugh (if a bit uncomfortably) as the story of his posthumous popularity sets in. Nobody likes Kyle, you see, but it's only after his death (which is caused by an errant bout of autoerotic asphyxiation) that the kid becomes some sort of cult hero and patron saint. (At its most satirical moments, World's Greatest Dad feels a little like Heathers, which is obviously meant as a compliment.) But why would a kid who died while masturbating be worthy of post-death respect? Well, it's because his well-meaning papa decided to hang his son's body in a closet -- suicide is just a little less embarrassing than the truth, you see -- and then he pens his son's suicide note. Sort of noble and disgusting at the same time...
But things get a lot more frantic once Kyle's suicide note becomes a campus sensation. Lance is a failed novelist, and he simply cannot believe that this -- a fake suicide note -- is the first time people have appreciated his writing skills. And Lance's newfound popularity is sweetened by the affections of his girlfriend ... and then things get really twisted. What began as a noble gesture for his dead son has transformed into an unstoppable freight train of deception. Meanwhile, all of the students who used to hate Kyle are finding new ways to deify the deceased dork ... all because of a suicide letter that his Dad slapped together to avoid a giant humiliation.
So, yeah, clearly this movie is not for all tastes. You'll have to have a strong respect for gallows humor and uncomfortable silences to get much of what World's Greatest Dad is doling out, but for those who don't mind a strong mixture of "dark yet broad" comedy, I'm betting you'll appreciate what's being offered here. If a few of the jokes are telegraphed and a handful of the scenes run on a bit long, those are small gripes in the face of a truly strange comedy that, yep, actually has a message hidden beneath its colorfully tacky exterior.
But just like you should warn a group before you tell them a really "blue" joke, I think it's important to warn notify potential viewers that, yes, World's Greatest Dad is a very dirty joke of a movie. As a director, Goldthwait (whom you probably remember as a clever comedian trapped in a screechy exterior) continues to mine the middle ground between the absurd and the stupidly mundane, and while it takes an open mind to appreciate the odd 'n' twisted messages that Dad has to offer, I think it's refreshing to find a slick, smart comedy that's not afraid to trade in a little "sick" humor.
Ah, and a special dose of bemused praise is due to the young Daryl Sabara, whom you'll no doubt remember from the Spy Kids flicks. Let's just say his performance here is so over-the-top hilariously obnoxious that I wanted to climb into the screen and punch the kid in the mouth. I do believe that this is what Goldthwait was going for, and so this should be taken as a compliment. Having said that, I hope Sabara plays a nice guy the next time out. This character was just so ... icky.