Saturday, August 23, 2014

Film Review: World's Greatest Dad

"World's Greatest Dad"  *** (out of ****)

This review is dedicated to Robin Williams, who died on August 11, 2014. He was 64 years old.

When it was revealed Robin Williams had died, I, like most people, was sad and shocked. I didn't expect it. I didn't see it coming. And, while everyone started re-watching "Mrs. Doubtfire" (1993) or "Aladdin" (1992) or "Good Will Hunting" (1997), for which he won an Academy Award for best supporting actor, another movie came to mind, this Bobcat Goldthwait dark comedy, "World's Greatest Dad" (2009).

I remember when this movie was released in theatres but I never got around to seeing it. I thought of the movie in reference to Williams' death only because it deals with death and suicide. I wondered, if now, after Williams death, we could read something into the movie. Were the signs of depression there in Williams? What type of projects were interesting him to work on?

A lot of people fail to realize or chose not to think about it, but, comedy is very dark. Happy people usually don't become famous comedians. Whether it is Richard Lewis, Woody Allen or Charlie Chaplin, comedians have been known to deal with personal demons. They are sad people. Richard Lewis, for example, wrote a book about his problems called "The Other Great Depression".

Comedy can touch on serious subjects. Comedy takes real issues, real problems, and tweaks it here and there to find humor. Comedy can deal with death, divorce and even suicide as in the case of "World's Greatest Dad". Comedy comes from a dark corner in people's souls. It doesn't surprise me to know Robin Williams was depressed. It is the nature of comedy. Only after going through pain can you begin to laugh. Comedy shows us the world and human nature in a gentle way but makes us face our faults.

In "World's Greatest Dad" Williams plays Lance Clayton, a poetry teacher (perhaps a nod to "Dead Poets Society" (1989), his Oscar nominated role) who has never been published. He has written a few novels but has had no success. He wants to become famous, the creative process is not enough for him. He wants to make money and be loved by the public.

Lance has a son, Kyle (Danyl Sabara). Kyle is a loner. He stays in his room and watches porn mostly. He only has one friend, Andrew (Evan Martin), who he bosses around. Kyle wants nothing to do with his father. Whenever Lance makes a suggestion for the two of them to hang out, Kyle rejects it as a dumb idea. The two have nothing in common and each day it becomes a little harder for the two to communicate.

If his relationship with his son isn't difficult enough, Lance must also contend with his "girlfriend", Claire (Alexie Gilmore). Both are teachers at the same school and must keep their relationship hidden. Claire does such a good job of hiding their relationship she doesn't even have time for Lance. Instead Claire spends all her time with another male teacher, Mike (Henry Simmons). Claire says the two are just friends, but, when was the last time you could trust a woman? Lance has eyes and can see what is going on, even if sometimes he won't admit it to himself.

Lance has a job he doesn't like, surrounded by people he doesn't like, a girlfriend he can't trust and a son that doesn't seem to like him. Why can't Lance get ahead? Why does it always seem to be to other people that have good things happen to them? Why do other people always seem happier? When will our time come? When will life ease up on us and stop being such a miserable, gruesome, challenging experience?

As faith would have it, Lance's son would have to kill himself before good things begin to happen. One day, Lance finds Kyle accidentally killed himself while masturbating. Kyle liked to put a belt around his neck and choke himself before reaching climax. Something went wrong and now Kyle is dead. Wanting to protect his son's image, Lance rearranges things so it looks as if Kyle hanged himself and left a suicide note.

The note goes public and is published in the school paper. Soon, people who never liked Kyle, now feel a connection with him. Kyle was "one of them". Kyle represented every person that ever felt like an outsider. Lance's poetry class becomes popular as all the other students want to ask Lance about Kyle's likes. The school library will be named after Kyle, when it is discovered Kyle had a love of writing. Actually, Lance wrote a pretend diary for Kyle, representing his daily struggle.

Lance is asked to be on TV shows, Claire starts paying more attention to him, life finally seems good. People notice Lance, but, it is Kyle that is getting all the attention. And people only want to be close to Lance to feed off of his 15 minutes of fame.

And here "World's Greatest Dad" hits on some uncomfortable truths about people and society. People are no good. They are evil, jealous and greedy. People are only interested in filling their own pockets. People will latch themselves on to other's success. They will exploit someone's grief for their own gain. And, we turn the dead into symbols. We champion causes in their honor. As a way to remember someone. But, half the time, we don't know these people. We project ourselves onto them. They become what we want them to be. In the end, it all boils down to, everything is about us.

"World Greatest Dad" hits its mark. It presents its ideas clearly. It makes its social commentary in a non-threatening way. It is subtle. The performance given by Robin Williams is subtle. He is a man defeated. Life has beaten him up. There is anger and hostility there but Williams keeps it all inside. This is not one of his "maniac" roles. This is not the genie in "Aladdin", or his character in "The Birdcage" (1996). He doesn't do voices and impressions here. There is despair hidden in this character.

My biggest problem however with "World's Greatest Dad" is it is not funny enough. There were no big laughs. I smile and nodded at the picture. I may have chuckled (do people still chuckle?) once or twice but a big belly laugh? No. Not for me. The comedy in this comedy is wanting. The social message in this comedy is strong for the most part. That is what makes the movie work. It has something to say and says it, despite coping out a bit at the end. I would have preferred a darker ending. I don't want to see characters have a moment of clarity. I don't believe that exist. I liked the more cynical nature of the film.

The fact that Robin Williams could do a movie like this and "Jumanji" (1995) says something about his talents. He could be bright and bouncy in one movie and dark in another. He plays a serial killer in Christopher Nolan's brilliant "Insomnia" (2002) with Al Pacino, a remake of an equally great Scandinavian film. But then he acted in another dark comedy, directed by Danny DeVito, "Death to Smoochy" (2002) or what about his role in "One Hour Photo" (2002)?

Williams didn't seem to have a middle ground. It is either a maniac character or a reclusive, tormented person. Was the real Williams like that? Happy one moment, sad the next. I don't know and it would be foolish for me to "read" into the man.

Born Robin McLaurin Williams on July 21, 1951, Williams first came to the public's attention playing one of those maniac, bright and bouncy characters, an alien named Mork on the television show "Mork & Mindy". The series ran from 1978 until 1982. Williams even won a Golden Globe after the show's first year for best actor. He would also get to work with one of his comedy heroes, Jonathan Winters, on the show.

The TV success lead to his first major starring role in a movie, working with the legendary director, Robert Altman, on "Popeye" (1980), with Williams in the title role. From there Williams would go on to receive a total of four Oscar nominations. Three of them would be in the best actor category for his roles in "Good Morning Vietnam" (1987), "The Dead Poets Society" and "The Fisher King" (1991). The one time he won was in the best supporting actor category for "Good Will Hunting".

Williams' incredible improv skills and rapid wit will truly be missed. He was always "on", always funny. Always doing anything for a laugh when he was in front of an audience. He was a brave performer, willing to walk to the edge and then deciding to go a little further.

I only know Bobcat Goldthwait on the other hand from his work in "Police Academy 2" (1985) and its sequel "Police Academy 3" (1986). I wasn't expecting this type of movie from him, both in humor and commentary. He is an interesting voice. It will be interesting to see what else he has in store for us.