With only three feature films to his credit—Shakes the Clown (1991), Sleeping Dogs Lie (2006) and this—comedian Bobcat Goldthwait has established himself as a unique, if not prolific, voice in filmmaking. He takes outrageous subjects—an alcoholic clown, boredom-born bestiality, an embarrassing death made to look like a less embarrassing suicide—and crafts movies around them that weirdly subvert the outrageousness of the subjects. He’s an uncynical satirist who uses satire less to puncture the pompous than to sympathize with the weird. He sets out to frighten the horses only to turn around and show you that the fright is illusory. For example, Sleeping Dogs Lie is not a movie about a woman who performs an indelicate act with her pet dog (though that’s the hook), but about the wisdom—indeed doubtful need—of complete honesty. As a result, the film industry has no clue what do with him, and his films get scant bookings through smaller companies.
His most recent film, World’s Greatest Dad, may be his most accomplished work to date—in part because it tackles a topic rarely tackled, and never tackled at all in this manner. Goldthwait’s hook this round is what happens when a father—Lance Clayton (a subdued Robin Williams), a teacher and failed writer—discovers his monstrous son, Kyle (Daryl Sabara, Spy Kids), has accidentally killed himself via autoerotic asphyxiation. Lance opts to make his son’s death look like a suicide—complete with a heart-wrenching suicide note that comes straight from the wishful-thinking father’s heart. The film’s theme, however, is the amazing ability of death to turn the terminally unlovable—even completely unlikable—Kyle into a great guy. You know, that fellow who was a jerk last week, who post-life everyone says was the salt of the earth just because he’s now a part of it? Kyle is that guy—in the most extreme way, since he stands a good chance of being the most repellent example of humanity imaginable.
Goldthwait takes this material and crafts a fascinating, perceptive, often bleakly funny look at the kind of “death cult” that we so often see spring up in the wake of a famous—or even, as in this case, posthumously famous—person’s death. It’s the herd mentality and more—the desire to latch onto something, even if that something is utterly bogus. In this case, the situation is upped by the machinations of Lance’s ambitions as a writer, who now turns his thwarted talents toward the fabrication of the son he wished he’d had by serving as Kyle’s ghostwriter. Not only does this cause all the kids at school to claim relationships with—and visions of—Kyle that never existed, but it sends Lance’s own stock soaring. He’s respected, sympathized with, and even his ambivalent and fickle girlfriend (Alexie Gilmore, Definitely, Maybe) wants to go public with their heretofore quiet relationship.
The psychology of it all is fascinating and keenly presented—often in penetratingly funny ways, as when something approximating Kyle’s ghost appears to embody everyone’s new “vision” of the reimagined “real Kyle.” And some good comes out of this, too, since the fiction brings out both the worst and a bit of the best in the others (of course, how real any of this is is open to question). More, the price that Lance pays for the deception—especially since Kyle’s one quasi-friend (newcomer Evan Martin) isn’t buying any of this—is conceivably too high. This last is crucial to Goldthwait’s worldview—and some view it as softening the satire. Maybe so, but it’s part of what makes Goldthwait more than simply a snarky satirist. Rated R for language, crude and sexual content, some drug use and disturbing images.