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World’s Greatest Dad

I’ve watched some really terrible films just because Robin Williams is in them. This is not one of them – World’s Greatest Dad is one of his better outings and is his best film since One Hour Photo.

Williams plays an under-subscribed and over-the-hump poetry teacher, who turns up each day with a regretful benevolence to face his handful of assorted lost souls and their plagiarised ‘poems’. He can only look on as a much younger creative writing populist racks up the numbers. He faces having his class snuffed out before the next enrolment unless the unlikeliest happens: the numbers go up. They could hardly go down.

He then gets to trundle home in his sadmobile and survey his lot, which consists of a house emptied of all but his unpleasant son, who we first encounter engaging in a spot of auto-erotic asphyxiation. When I tell you that Williams storming in on this act, which he believes to have been a successful suicide attempt, is extremely funny, you get an idea as to whether this film is for you or not. It’s very much part of the Todd Solondz extended cinematic family, and therefore concepts such as ‘confrontational’ and ‘offensive’ don’t hold much sway.

From there, we discover that Williams is a failed writer, who has mailed off his manuscript one last time. He is also busy attempting to maintain something resembling ‘family’ with his impossible son and, when he has a spare moment to himself outside the collapsing nightmare that is his job and home life, he’s trying to keep a fellow, much younger teacher amorously interested (as the painfully more appealing ‘creative-writing’ guy circles). In any case, he heads home one day and his son is dead from further risky hi-jinks (a genuinely devastating moment that dares you to laugh) and an opportunity is taken of which Williams grasps with both hairy hands. Cue: the ‘suicide journal’ that never was and an uncomfortable rise in fortunes. For my money, an ensuing scene on a daytime talk-show brilliantly and agonisingly showcases what’s great about both the film and Williams, as he barely keeps it together and prompts the kind of complex laughter most films never get close to realising.

World’s Greatest Dad is admirable, very funny and scathing, and is often so deadpan as to feel likeably deranged and fairly disturbing; there is little way of second-guessing the first two-thirds beyond the parameters of each scene. Goldthwait and Williams – scarcely better used, a masterclass in how to get uneasy laughs – pull off the nigh-impossible trick of maintaining, for a good 70 minutes, a sense of both hellish poignancy and guffaw-imminence, in much the same way that Daniel Clowes somehow manages time and again. It’s a feat and Goldthwait should be given license to make the territory his own: pitch-black interesting character comedy is hardly abundant. And rare is the director that can get away with such an assortment of caricatures without invoking shruggery. If the film loses a little of its hold towards the closing exaltations and jumps ship for a cosy finale, you’d have to be seriously curmudgeonly to feel short-changed by then.

Director Bobcat Goldthwait was, of course, the cat-voiced madman from various 80s films such as the Police Academy series and One Crazy Summer. I hated that voice. Goldthwait, though, is clearly a decent director, and if he can convince Williams to do more of this ilk and stop farting about in kidflick codswallop, more the better.

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