Published on December 31st, 2014 | by Clint Davis
World’s Greatest Dad 
Summary: There's hardly a chuckle in this lighthearted look at very dark subject matter — namely, teen suicide — that is difficult to watch after the death of its star. Robin Williams hits the right notes but plays one of his least dynamic, and ultimately least likable characters. The script just makes no sense in parts.
R | 99 min.
Director & Screenplay: Bobcat Goldthwait
Starring: Robin Williams, Daryl Sabara, Alexie Gilmore
Distribution: Magnolia Pictures
U.S. Box Office: $221,805 (#275 of 2009)
Time and retrospection typically have one of two effects on a movie: They can bolster the film’s power by showing how enduring and ahead of its time the material was OR can completely soil your positive memories of a long ago favorite. For World’s Greatest Dad, time has simply made it an uncomfortable watch.
I, like most of the world, felt a shot to the gut this year when Robin Williams — arguably the most beloved comedic actor of all time — committed suicide by hanging himself in a bedroom inside his home. This 2009 picture makes light of self-inflicted death after a completely unlikable character accidentally commits suicide — by hanging — while masturbating.
The humor in World’s Greatest Dad is dark. I mean pitch black. Directed by comedian Bobcat Goldthwait (Shakes the Clown), the film was released at a time when death by autoerotic asphyxiation counted as topical subject matter because two months prior to its opening, actor David Carradine died in such an incident. And I’ll admit that being killed while trying to get off is a curious plot point (it worked well in an episode of HBO’s Six Feet Under) but the fact that World’s Greatest Dad is about the death of a child is what really sucks any novelty out of it.
The script, written by Goldthwait, really has no laughs built in and the performance by Williams — a solid one, as usual — is one of his most somber. Williams plays Lance Clayton, a high school English teacher and failed novelist. The school Lance teaches at appears to be private but this is far from Dead Poets Society; none of the students are interested in his lessons and the poetry class he started is about to be cut due to lack of enrollment. His teenage son Kyle (Daryl Sabara) is a complete dickhead with zero appreciation for his single father and a list of hobbies that includes watching copious amounts of porn on his computer, snapping pictures up women’s skirts with his cell phone and referring to people as “fags.” Goldthwait holds nothing back in letting us know Kyle is an unredeemable asshole.
When Lance finds Kyle dead with his pants down and belt around his neck one evening, he briefly mourns for his only child before posing his corpse inside the closet to make it look like a hanging and ghostwriting a thoughtful suicide note to be found by the emergency crews. But Lance doesn’t stop there. After seeing an outpour of support from his school’s students and faculty he writes a fabricated diary from Kyle’s point of view and publishes it to great success. In the twisted universe of World’s Greatest Dad, it turns out that the death of a child can be the greatest thing that ever happened to a parent.
Landing Williams as the lead was certainly a coup for this small production and will be the leading reason many people see World’s Greatest Dad. The actor doesn’t disappoint. Lance is one of Williams’ least expressive characters but the performance isn’t boring. With subtlety Williams is able to show the insecurities that come with unrealized talent, unconditional love as a father and in the movie’s best scene, unbridled joy and freedom.
The reason this movie fails isn’t because of its cast but rather because it doesn’t know what to be. Most descriptions I’ve read of World’s Greatest Dad classify it as a comedy — which is the genre tag I’ve attached to this review — but this film is a comedy in the same way that ramen noodles are a meal. Just barely. This movie just isn’t funny; in fact, it’s actually really sad. The jokes don’t always feel like jokes, such as when Lance says to Kyle in one scene, “If you don’t act right at dinner, I’ll stab you in the face.” No one is laughing because no one would blame him.
Another issue with this movie’s screenplay is that it gives no credit to nearly its entire supporting cast of characters — and by extension the entire world. You’re telling me that aside from two characters, nobody suspects Lance has written the letter or the diary? Even Kyle’s litany of English teachers are buying in? I had an easier time buying Melanie Griffith as a master WWII spy in Shining Through. Everyone just goes along for the ride and perpetuates this sudden swell of interest in Kyle’s life post-mortem as if they have nothing else going on in their lives outside of the movie’s scripted plot points. Eventually the entire nation is sucked in, with publishers buying the lie that it was written by a troubled teenager who never showed a moment of intelligence in his entire life. It’s just dopey writing on Goldthwait’s part.
I was also confounded by the movie’s climactic moment, which didn’t jive at all with the entire setup. Lance’s sudden change of heart comes completely out of nowhere and is totally unprovoked. The audience is given no clues that he feels guilty or unsure about his choices and just one scene earlier we’re told that all of his dreams of being a published novelist are finally going to come true. It just made no sense with the 90 minutes of plot we had seen leading to that point.
What this film does well is that it makes the audience conflicted in their feelings for Lance. Despite the benefits he reaps from his son’s death, Lance’s motives for staging his son’s suicide seem to be based on his love for this awful kid. Williams, like World’s Greatest Dad in general, is not funny in this role but he’s a relatable guy. He’s not a guy that feels sorry for himself, he continues to write new fiction and send it to publishers and he also tries hard to make his relationships work. After finding Kyle’s body and unleashing the film’s most emotional moment — which is unfortunately covered by a blaring soundtrack — Lance seems to find catharsis in penning the fake suicide letter. He then accidentally sees how far empathy can take his career. Unfortunately there just isn’t anything particularly interesting about this movie and the way it moves. We simply follow Lance through his days, which don’t consist of much action or interaction with interesting characters.
The message World’s Greatest Dad conveys is one about how popularity often follows death and also how history is controlled by the living. In life, Kyle was persona non grata, and for good reason, but in death he’s celebrated by his peers. It’s kind of like how Vincent van Gogh only managed to sell one painting while he was alive, except van Gogh actually deserved the popularity whereas Kyle never had an original thought in his head. This dark picture is about how the legacy of a person can be manipulated after their death. In Kyle’s case, he goes from a social pariah to having his face plastered on every kid’s t-shirt at school. This movie did remind me of that popular “Anonymous” book Go Ask Alice which was allegedly written by a Mormon youth counselor but sold as the real diary of a teenage girl who slips into a life of drug abuse.
The way World’s Greatest Dad treats its morbid subject matter is handled in a completely lighthearted manner from start to finish. In an interview with Film School Rejects, Goldthwait described the making of the movie as being a total blast. I just wish we saw that on screen.
Ultimately, the suicide storyline gives this movie an unshakeable level of awkwardness following Williams’ death. It hits way too close to home and is especially uncomfortable in one scene where the late actor looks directly to camera and implores to the audience, “If you’re depressed, reach out to someone. Remember, suicide is a permanent solution to temporary problems.” Thankfully Williams was not someone whose legacy needed padding or manipulation after his death but the nonchalant way the script handles suicide is unfortunate now knowing what we do about the actor’s struggles with depression.
Soon after Kyle’s death, his only actual friend observes to Lance, “Did Kyle seem bummed out to you? It’s just he didn’t seem that sad, to do what he did.” Who didn’t make the same observation this past August?