We don't see enough of Robin Williams anymore. Not the Williams of Old Dogs, Bicentennial Man and Patch Adams. No, him of Good Will Hunting, Insomnia and One Hour Photo: the one who remoulds himself to inhabit great characters rather than remoulding characters to fit his schtick. Happily, it’s the right Robin Williams who stars in Bobcat Goldthwait’s sophomore shock-com, World’s Greatest Dad.
We’ve seen how Williams’ twinkle-eyed features, so appropriate for a jester, can twist effectively to the benefit of menace and/or empathic drama. Here Goldthwait employs those features as a mask for Lance, English teacher and unpublished writer, who has found himself shuffling around midlife’s cul-de-sac. Lance smiles that impish smile, but the eye twinkles are pure rhinestone. He’s going through the motions — even dabbling in a clandestine affair with a sexy fellow teacher (Alexie Gilmore) — but he’s a man leeched of joy, much of the leeching done by his abhorrent teenage son. And Williams (down)plays it brilliantly.
He’s let down a little by Goldthwait himself, though. World’s Greatest Dad is single-threaded, and the concept is pulled too taut — until it snaps with a desperately conventional ending. By making his central idea as shocking as possible, he’s hoping we won’t notice it’s the only idea. So, just as his previous flick, Sleeping Dogs Lie, was about a woman trying to live with the guilty secret that she gave her pooch a blowjob, World’s Greatest Dad is about a man faking his son’s suicide note, thereby artificially inflating his own status with his peers. It’s a great concept, zig-zagging between heart-splintering tragedy and dark comedy.
But where are the subplots? The other characters? The girlfriend, Kyle’s only buddy, the odd lady next-door… Their arcs are faint doodles compared with the bold strokes lavished on Lance. Goldthwait should have spent more time giving the broader story more weight than overplaying the main conceit. Isn’t it enough that Kyle is an artless, sweaty blob without Goldthwait repeatedly reminding us he’s into German scheisse porn? Although having his self-asphyxiating death-wank occur over his phone-camera up-skirt shots of Lance’s girlfriend is a nice touch. ‘Nice’ being the wrong word…