Monday, December 21, 2009

513 - World's Greatest Dad review

Bobcat Goldthwait’s “World’s Greatest Dad” mixes the sweet with the crude in a way that’s more sincere and less calculated than the much vaunted mixtures in Judd Apatow’s films. His ugliness is uglier, but that in turn makes the sweetness sweeter, as kindness in a dark world is all the more meaningful.

Robin Williams is restrained as the titular dad, a failed novelist and high school English teacher. He’s the kind of sad sack who watches impotently as his girlfriend runs around with other men and others effortlessly achieve the recognition he desperately needs. Worst of all is his son Kyle (Daryl Sabara), an irredeemably vile cretin whose only interest is pornography (“Music is for fags,” he tells his dad, telling us more about him a line than most filmmakers would in two hours).

One evening Williams comes home to find his boy dead, snuffed out from an experiment with auto-erotic asphyxiation gone awry. Heartbroken but cognizant of his son’s shortcomings as a human being, Williams hangs the boy in the closet and forges a poignant suicide note. The note becomes public, and soon there’s a cult of personality developed around his son at the high school, despite the fact that Kyle was justifiably disdained by virtually the entire student body and faculty. On a high from the pseudo-recognition Williams goes on to produce an entire journal under his son’s name, deepening . Only Kyle’s sole friend (Evan Martin) suspects a thing, while Williams basks in the adornment of those who find Kyle’s false narrative touching.

What’s most effective about “World’s Greatest Dad” is Goldthwait’s commentary, an organic mixture of edgy and heartfelt truths. As in his last film, “Sleeping Dogs Lie,” the difficulty of facing the truth is integral to the theme, here demonstrated as Williams’ guilt grows over manipulating his despicable son’s death for personal gain. Goldthwait seems to ask that even if some are inspired by a lie, what does it say about them who need a falsehood to galvanize their kindness and concern for others? How honest is a society that we feel compelled to pour adulation on the departed?

Sabara, known previously for the “Spy Kids” films, creates one of the most unlikeable screen persona's I’ve ever seen. Kyle’s charmless vulgarity and mindless cruelty come unadorned with the wink and nudge so many performers would be tempted to provide it. As moviegoers, we’re so used to seeing evil characters as serial killers and tyrants that when presented with one who’s simply a rotten miscreant, it’s a shock. Only because of Williams, whose beleaguered teacher comes across as a nice guy cursed with inadequacy, does Kyle’s death have an impact.

It’s unfortunate that after a wonderful first two acts, that Goldthwait hedges his bets with the third. Spanning approximately five minutes, the film closes with a passage that narrowly avoids being entirely artificial, but also fails to reap the potentially rich benefits of what had been sown; it’s not only a weak consolation to the sad, but very nearly a savage betrayal of the emotional honesty which came before. What saves it from being a disaster is that the ending seems plausible enough if one overlooks the fact that Goldthwait largely neglected the lead-up; do the work yourself, and it works, though I fear the long term popularity of a film that insists the audience do a share of the writing.

But what works stays. Even a week after viewing the film’s features, from the commentary on whitewashing the lives of the dead to the wicked sense of humor refused to depart my consciousness, haunting the recesses of my brain as only excellent films do.

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