If there was a film I liked last year as much as Herzog's BAD LIEUTENANT, it was probably Bobcat Goldthwait's WORLD'S GREATEST DAD, which is kind of funny because if there were an actor whose star vehicle would potentially turn me off as much Nicolas Cage in BAD LIEUTENANT, it could easily be Robin Williams, the star of Goldthwait's film. Cage and Williams occupy a similar space in my mind. Both had some good films early in their careers, or at the very least some legitimate films (Cage, however briefly, in FAST TIME AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, then VAMPIRE'S KISS and WILD AT HEART, Williams in THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP and MOSCOW ON THE HUDSON) before segueing into careers of mediocrity finally bordering on self-parody. Each actor showed up now and again in something of value (Cage in THE WEATHER MAN by Gore Verbinskti, Williams in Mark Romanek's ONE HOUR PHOTO), but these projects were few and far in-between. The majority of these actors works can be found pretty squarely in either the middle-of-the-road or the bottom-of-the-barrell, mugging and shrugging through living-living dead quality performances in entirely inconsequential movies.
Bobcat Goldthwait, on the other hand, segued out of a talented stand-up comedy career to acting, most notably in the Police Academy movies of the 1980s, most of which I saw during their first runs, and Goldthwait's character being the one I picked out the films as most interesting. Though he continued to voice act for several years in the 1990s on the weird tv show "Unhappily Ever After," much of the comedian's creative drive seemed directed more towards filmmaking, first with the anarchic comedy SHAKES THE CLOWN in 1991, then through several years of directing for television on programs like "Chapelle's Show" and "Windy City Heat," before returning to the big screen again in 2006 with the film SLEEPING DOGS LIE. I don't recall if I ever got around the discussing SLEEPING DOGS LIE on Negative Pleasure, but I meant to, and I should have. In this film, about a woman who suffers the consequences of impulsively performing oral sex on her dog one boring afternoon, tapes so successfully into the well of pain-as-comedy as any film you've ever seen. It vacilitates, without much obvious effort, between humor and discomfort, raises moral implications without passing moral judgements and presents a set of characters who are not immediately identifiable as the expected archetypes of film comedy. The dog blower is the protagonist of the film, and we are laregly sympathetic towards her throughout, and yet in the back of our minds as viewers there is this bit of discomfort in feeling quite so alligned with a character whose defining moment is sucking a dog's dick. SLEEPING DOGS LIE is a funny film, but also a challenging one, it goes beyond the gross out factor into something much weightier about people, history, memory, morality, redemption, self-esteem, a lot of the big, heavy shit that defines us as individuals and defines our experience in the world.
WORLD'S GREATEST DAD also draws a thin line between humor and discomfort, perhaps really between humor and PAIN, and it does so, I believe, even more strongly than SLEEPING DOGS LIE. Robin Williams stars in the film as Lance Clayton, a middle-aged failed writer relegated to teaching an unpopular poetry class in a suburban high school. He's dating a fellow teacher (Alexie Gilmore), but she runs really hot-an-cold on him, showing interest in him one moment, then shifting her attention to one of their more successful colleagues (Henry Simmons) the next.
Worst of all is Clayton's son, Kyle (played by Daryl Sabara of the SPY KIDS movies). Kyle is unpopular at school, but he's not the kind of misunderstood, secretly talented or insightful kind of unpopular kid. Rather, he's a creepy, oafish perv whose only apparent interest is pornography. In a nutshell, he's dumb and mean and even his father doesn't entirely seem to know what to do about him. This is presumably every parents' nightmare, that they might wind up hating their kid. I'm sure it's much more common than anyone admits, but it's incredibly troubling to watch, because Williams' character obviously does have some affection for the teen, and makes attempts at reaching out to him, perhaps in the hopes that the boy is just going through a phase or a difficult patch, tempered by the strong suggestion that he simply may have sired an awful human being. It wouldn't shock me if most parents of teenage boys went through sometime like this at some point. It might worry me if they didn't.
When Kyle accidentally kills himself during an attempt at autoerotic asphyxiation, Lance discovers the body and attempts to cover up the embarrassing aspects of his son's death by making it look like a suicide. He writes a fake suicide note that gets circulated around the school and gains sympathy for the previously fairly detested Kyle. Soon Lance's dead son has a cult following, and for the first time, people are showing interest in Lance's writing, even though they don't know it's his. The increased interest spurs Lance to write a fake diary, which is published and captures media attention. Suddenly, unexpectedly, Kyle is getting the things he's always wanted. His girlfriend is paying attention to him, kids are enrolling in class and people are actually reading his writing. Granted, this is all coming at the expense of his dead son, but Lance's life before Kyle's death was kind of grim, so is that really so much of a bad thing? Is it really so bad that a shitty kid had to die so that a basically decent guy could live a happier life?
Eventually, though, Lance comes to realize that the attention surrounding him is mostly superficial. The interest in dead Kyle doesn't have anything to do with the boy's life, but with romantic notions built up around him based on Lance's writing. Similarly, the interest in Lance's writing isn't genuine, but rather wrapped up in the romance of a dead, tragic teenager. Increasingly, Lance is confronted with the emptiness of his newfound success. Things are going well, but for all the wrong reasons, and none of it is really as good as he thought it would be.
Goldthwait's film really excels at portraying this scenario in a nuanced fashion, and bringing humor to a depiction of life at its grossest, most corrupt and empty. Though it sounds downbeat, WORLD'S GREATEST DAD actually manages to be pretty uplifting in a satisfying way. In a culture that's driven by aggression and dominance, always being on top, achieving at any cost etc., it's refreshing to find a film that essentially celebrates the liberation that comes with being kind of a loser. And it's funny, often in the least comfortable way possible. So, yeah, WORLD'S GREATEST DAD, one of my favorite films of 2009.