Home is where the hurt is in “World’s Greatest Dad,” an unsettling comedy-drama starring Robin Williams.
If the title suggests that this is Williams in cuddly-cute Disney mode, be warned. The raw material is the stuff of Greek tragedy: family ties that bind (and choke), sexual perversity, blind ambition, death. Its humor is the darkest of the dark, not for the faint of heart or those lacking a strong sense of irony. Yet it’s not a wallow in despair; by the finale, it’s good, old-fashioned catharsis. It’s horrifying, yes, but you can relate to it.
The film follows high school poetry teacher and single father Lance Clayton (Williams) through a surreal nightmare that grants his dearest wish by destroying what makes him truly happy. He initially appears to be a typical indie-film sad sack. His students are apathetic and few, his manuscripts come back from publishers with terse rejection letters, and his existence is dull routine. There is a pinch of romance in his life thanks to sunny art teacher Claire ( Alexie Gilmore).
Most of his emotional energy goes into his sincere efforts to bond with his snide son, Kyle (Daryl Sabara, “Spy Kids”). Lance has sole custody following his divorce, and it’s hard to believe that the mother fought very hard to keep the teenaged gargoyle. Kyle treats Lance with contempt, and Lance feels somehow guilty that his kid’s a jerk. He loves Kyle although he’s impossible to like. If only Lance were able to provide more; time to send off another manuscript.
It’s not a great life, all in all, but the plot is only warming up. Charismatic new English teacher Mike (Henry Simmons) is siphoning off Lance’s students and spending plenty of friendly time with Claire. Lance’s teaching job threatens to go the way of his failed literary career.
Then a horrific fatality rocks the private school’s student body, and Lance makes a rash, out-of-character decision. He writes a journal entry that makes the deceased appear nobler in death than in life. The fickle students embrace melancholy Lance as a hero. Soon he’s a glib celebrity, spouting uplifting platitudes on talk shows and writing a dishonest book that has publishers yapping like starved dogs. Conscience shredded, Lance reaches the climax of the movie with an uncertain grasp on his humanity.
Williams delivers a heartbreaking, layered and bleakly funny performance that helps us forget his many lazy paycheck roles and rediscover why he won an Oscar. He grows before our eyes.
Writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait doesn’t have a filmmaker’s eye for composition or crackerjack timing. His scenes just sort of loiter around. His feeling for characters, however, is sharp. We follow Claire through every pendulum swing of her attraction to Lance. Sabara is top-notch as the obnoxious Kyle, whose dialogue is a cavalcade of squeamishly sick jokes.
But Williams stands out. The film created quite a buzz because of a brief scene where he bares a lot of skin, but it will be remembered as one where he let himself go emotionally naked.
World’s Greatest Dad
☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Robin Williams, Alexie Gilmore, Daryl Sabara.
Director: Bobcat Goldthwait
Rated: R, for language, crude and sexual content, some drug use and disturbing images.
Note: Will be shown at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Capitol Theater. Goldthwait will be on hand to accept an award and hold a question-and-session.