(there is no way to discuss World's Greatest Dad without venturing into spoiler territory, so if that kind of thing bothers you, consider yourself warned)
I was introduced to Bobcat Goldthwait through his appearance on Space Ghost Coast to Coast when I was about nine or ten years old. I can't recall all that much of the interview, but what struck me most about it was that Goldthwait seemed to be more in tune with the bizarre nature of the interviews on that show than any of the other guests. He was pretty funny, and the appearance left me with an impression of the comedian that remained more or less unchanged over the last decade and a half: that he had a good sense of humor with some pleasantly dark undertones and that his strange public persona was, if a little one note, at least consistently entertaining. I would certainly champion the guy in a conversation, but never thought about him all that much: it's not like he was quite on the level of, say, a Steven Wright.
Then I saw World's Greatest Dad, Goldthwait's third film as a director, and realized that I was wrong. Bobcat Goldthwait is a genius.
World's Greatest Dad stars Robin Williams as Lance Clayton, an unhappy and unfulfilled high school English teacher. He's written several books but hasn't managed to get published, the woman he's dating refuses to publicly acknowledge their relationship, and his teenage son Kyle is a sullen, ungrateful asshole who seems to care about nothing but internet pornography. He's used to watching powerlessly as the things he wants in life continue to slip through his fingers, but continues to try his best to create a life worth living for himself. Just as he appears to be finally making some progress, his life is suddenly ripped apart when his son dies in a masturbation related accident. Trying to save his son at least a shard of dignity, he fabricates a suicide note and creates a "tortured artist" persona for Kyle, and when the police report on the death leaks and the suicide note is published in the school newspaper Kyle immediately becomes the town's new folk hero.
This affords Lance the opportunity to finally get something published, albeit under Kyle's name, when he writes a diary supposedly detailing Kyle's deep and unheralded inner life.
A character refers to the diary Lance writes as the biggest posthumous autobiography since Anne Frank, and given the style of Goldthwait's comedy I expected the movie to follow along the lines of that joke tonally; I thought it would be a nihilistic comedy filled with acerbic little witticisms like that, something that might make for a fun afternoon but would more or less wash off me after I saw it.
World's Greatest Dad offers so much more than that kind of simple disposable entertainment that I found myself mentally apologizing to the movie for underestimating it several times as I watched it. It's easily one of the most emotionally genuine movies I have seen in some time, probably since Up. You wouldn't expect it from the description above, but World's Greatest Dad carries itself along without a hint of the ironic distance that a lot of dark comedies use to alleviate their source material, and at the same time it deftly avoids dipping into the kind of maudlin sentimentality that makes you feel manipulated and used after you turn off a movie. In fact, the movie can be so emotionally devastating at times that it is, as far as I can remember, the only comedy I have ever seen that actually employs intentional moments of "comic relief," and they always feel necessary when they show up. This is the kind of movie that can seriously wreck you. It's weird, because Kyle is a real douchebag, with almost no redeeming qualities, but when Lance finds him dead in his room it hits you like a sack of bricks: the combination of Williams' perfectly understated performance (never thought I'd get to write that again) with Goldthwait's empathetic direction and superb soundtrack choices really make clear the overwhelming grief that Lance must be feeling. Kyle isn't just a movie character, he's a person, and instead of snickering at the unusual way that he dies (and you would if this was a movie made by, say, a guy like Kevin Smith) you grieve with Lance at the loss of what tiny shred of a family he had left.
Thematically, World's Greatest Dad displays the same amount of depth that it does in feeling. It's a complex movie, and there are so many points that it makes that it might feel overwhelming if it wasn't handled with great sensitivity. And while every point that the movie tries to make is made well, especially an understated joke that compares Kyle's final school portrait to the famous Che Guevara "t-shirt" icon, underlining the point that when we see someone as a martyr they immediately become everything to everyone, the most powerful theme of the movie is loneliness and isolation. Lance becomes famous and successful by being a phony, and the more he lies to ingratiate himself to people he doesn't really like or care about the more he alienates himself from those around him to whom he feels a real connection. It's a suffocating feeling that very accurately captures what it's like to live a lie. At the end of the movie, when Lance finally comes clean, you literally feel like a weight has come off of your chest, like you can finally breathe again. It's powerful filmmaking, and it really feels like Lance has earned his redemption, illustrated through a wordless sequence that really raises the bar for the cinematic usage of Queen.
World's Greatest Dad is a truly hilarious comedy that illustrates the real-life complexities of grief, loss, and loneliness in a truly devastating way, and for that reason I will most likely never watch it again. It's not the kind of feeling that I want to feel all the time. Rarely would I consider that a compliment, but I can't think of a better way to sum up the movie. I'm very happy that I saw the movie. It genuinely made me reflect on and appreciate what I have in life, and it takes a powerful film to do that. It's probably not a movie for everybody, but for the people it was made for, you know who you are. And you have no excuse not to see it.