Dark comedy, done properly, requires a scabrous view of human nature and a mordant affection for human fallibility. Bobcat Goldthwait is simply too nice for the job. The stand-up comedian-turned-filmmaker's latest, World's Greatest Dad, has a softness at its center that leaves us with an unsatisfied appetite for blood.
Perhaps I should say "me" rather than "us." It's almost certain that I'm less enlightened than you, and more unfeeling. Surely you've never sat in a theater and agitatedly muttered to yourself in the dark, "Kill that character already! Quit stalling! We know he's going to die. Get on with it, and get on with the story!" Oh, you have? Then you'll understand that when Goldthwait finally pulls the plug, so to speak, in World's Greatest Dad, the movie kicks into another gear.
Dad is a mildly twisted spin on the clichéd high school movie where a decent but nerdy kid stands and delivers, or matures through trial by bully, and learns to be his or her own person. In this case, the dweeb is an adult, a teacher, who achieves his freedom by finally destroying his unfulfilled and unfulfilling urge to win the respect and affection of others.
Robin Williams plays a single father with an insufferable teenage son. Both go to the same high school, where Lance teaches poetry (his only class, apparently and improbably) and the loutish, cloddish Kyle (played by Daryl Sabara) is content to alienate everyone except a lone bewildered friend. Lance is working on his fifth unpublished novel, with the only bright spot in his life a secret, mostly sexual (her choice, as he'd prefer something deeper) relationship with a younger, fake-bubbly teacher (Alexie Gilmore, channeling Teri Garr circa 1983).
Lance lives a life of endless put downs and quiet desperation, which means Williams walks through the movie in pinched, hangdog mode. The character is neither a rebel nor a non-conformist, but neither is he fully numbed to the dreadful hollowness of his life. When a door opens for him, he still has enough imagination to stick his foot in the opening.
This brings us to the death that nudges World's Greatest Dad from sitcom to satire. It's foreshadowed in a very early scene, when Lance walks in on Kyle watching computer porn and engaged in auto-erotic asphyxiation. We wait and wait and wait for half the movie before Kyle finally, um, goes too far, removing his annoying personality from the scene and clearing the way for Lance's fateful decision to frame the freaky, humiliating accident as a poignant suicide. (There's no way Goldthwait could have anticipated David Carradine's death, which was freaky but not humiliating.)
The director reveals his aversion to going for the jugular in the immediate aftermath of Kyle's demise. Instead of Lance's wracking sobs, he places a pop song on the soundtrack, dampening our reaction to Lance's response to finding his son's body. It feels like an ironic touch, initially, but in retrospect I think it's sincere. Goldthwait doesn't want us to hurt too badly.
The movie does a good job of parodying the shopworn convention that death redeems the irredeemable, and allows for even the most egregious behavior to be forgiven. (It helps that Lance prints the legend, literally, not the facts.) It also plays at times like a send-up of an after-school special, albeit one rated R for language, crude and sexual content, some drug use, and disturbing images. It's a measure of how lightweight the movie is, though, that Kyle doesn't hover over the proceedings -- he's gone and we're glad. Not (just) because he's a schmuck, but because he was a boring, self-centered schmuck.
Lance is a good deal more engaging, primarily because we're curious to see how big and dramatic his transformation is going to be. Alas, it's pretty modulated, and combined with an unimaginative parade of flat, primary-color compositions, the overall effect is small-scale. The film's central questions -- What is success? What's the price of success? How does one stop settling and start choosing? -- deserve a pulpier, juicier setting than Goldthwait affords them.
It's patently unfair to critique Bobcat Goldthwait for lacking the ferocious cruelty of Luis Bunuel (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) or the take-no-prisoners irreverence of Stanley Kubrick (Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb). But he should know that it's not enough to point to the jugular. You've got to plant your claws and let 'em rip.
World's Greatest Dad opens Friday, Aug. 28, 2009 at the Bridge in San Francisco and the Albany in the East Bay.