Just in time for the lionization of Michael Jackson, Ted Kennedy, Farrah Fawcett comes Bobcat Goldthwait's savagely dark comedy World's Greatest Dad, a vicious rebuttal to the self-serving and revisionist nature of memory. Wedged uncomfortably between touching drama and scathing satire, Goldthwait's third feature (Shakes the Clown, Sleeping Dogs Lie) gets off to an awkward start but finds footing as it investigates loneliness, ambition, and acceptance with deadpan humor and emotional depth.
Robin Williams is Lance, high school English teacher, aspiring writer, and solo parent to Kyle (Daryl Sabara), the most repugnant and socially irredeemable teenager to ever stalk the mall. Dad is an amiable but spineless doormat who's as unsuccessful at interesting his students in poetry as he is at reigning in his son's endless scorn, misogyny, and selfishness. When Kyle accidentally kills himself (autoerotic asphyxia; with pictures of Dad's girlfriend's crotch, no less), Lance, desperate for some dignity, makes it look like suicide, writing a heartfelt farewell note. Because of the letter, Kyle the douchebag-son-and-hated-classmate unexpectedly becomes Kyle the misunderstood-yet-profoundly-sensitive soul. Soon students and faculty use his death as a canvass for their own needs, desires and insecurities. Lance is carried away by escalating attention, sympathy then fame, ghostwriting Kyle's posthumously "discovered" journals (to wide acclaim), securing the affections his sexual tease-colleague Claire (Alexie Gilmore), and even witnessing the dedication of the school's new library to his now-sanctified son.
Though Goldthwait's tonally erratic script can't quite deliver on the ambitions of its ideas, it makes a caustically honest stab at it, landing a few devastating blows. In particular, Lance's appearance on an Oprah-like talk show — where the host and audience mistake his maniacally stifled laughter for cries of grief — is brilliantly handled, due in no small part to William's terrific performance.
The cutting irony of World's Greatest Dad is that nearly everyone here is a phony and Kyle, for all his repulsiveness, remains true to his nature. But in a world where students jockey to prove their devotion to his memory, and faculty fawn over his unrevealed virtues, dead Kyle must become equally phony. And this is the crux of Lance's situation; that in order for him to appear good and decent, he must indulge himself as selfishly as possible. It's meaty, meaningful stuff that is, unfortunately, undone by on-the-nose writing, a tepid ending, and music montages. Still, when you consider that writer/director Goldthwait is the self-described "dick from the Police Academy movies," you can't help but wonder where this promisingly new direction in his film career will go.
At the Landmark Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.