World's Greatest Dad review

Originally published on August 28, 2009 | SF Chronicle | written by Amy Biancolli

The screwed-up parent at front and center in "World's Greatest Dad" isn't that much worse than anyone else who's tried, and failed, to cope with a foul-tempered adolescent. He just happens to fail more creatively than usual. And the adolescent just happens to be a pig.

This piggishness resists direct quotation in family newspapers; let's just say he hates everyone and everything that isn't a vagina, and leave it at that. If the movie's first half establishes anything, it's our sympathy for Dad, who tries like crazy to form some thin human bond with this blank-faced slab of hormones.

That isn't the whole story, of course--there's more going on here than the age-old struggle between maturity and its surly teen antithesis. That alone would be too straightforward for a sick-puppy cut-up like Bobcat Goldthwait, who marks his third go at movie writing and directing after 2006's "Stay" (or "Sleeping Dogs Lie"), about a gal who got intimate with a dog, and the 1992 alcoholic-jester movie "Shakes the Clown." So you can bet he has a few dark tricks up his sleeve in "World's Greatest Dad."

For a while, the film behaves like a moderately nervy high school satire. Lance Clayton (Robin Williams), a sad-sack poetry teacher and perpetually unpublished writer, has just mailed out copies of his fifth novel. As he dreams of literary fame and glory, he slogs through class time with an uninspired smattering of pupils and copes with his churlish 15-year-old, Kyle, played by Daryl Sabara without a hint of the old rug-rat spunk from the "Spy Kids" movies.

The opening scenes delineate both Kyle's groin-specific nihilism and the huge invisible "LOSER" sign on Lance's face, which blanches in shock when he learns that a handsome young co-worker (Henry Simmons) got a piece into the New Yorker on the first try. It's Williams' best close-up; in a millisecond, he nails the envy and despair of being on the sidelines when someone else succeeds.

Yet "World's Greatest Dad" concerns more than Lance's personal and professional humiliation, even as his girlfriend (Alexie Gilmore) bats her eyes at Mr. New Yorker. Midway through, Goldthwait upends the entire film and turns it into a pitch-black commentary on the vagaries and seductions of modern media celebrity, hinging everything on a twist so morbid it begs to be played for laughs. And it is, scathingly, decked out with a blood-red palette, a few whimsical figments and lots of Bruce Hornsby jokes.

But two faults weaken the effect. One is an overreliance on alt-rock montages (wailing "love is simple," when clearly it ain't); the other is a sudden, climactic narrative switchback that muddies the tone with sentimentality and blunts that "Heathers" edge. The closing speech and climactic exploit are well shot--and bravely acted, right down to Williams' socks--but they're bogus. After leading the audience into some very inky satire, Goldthwait backs off.

--Advisory: Language, crude and sexual content, some drug use and disturbing images.