One of the more unusual indie-film success stories of recent years has to be the ascension of Bobcat Goldthwait. Once known for his quasi-histrionic stand-up comedy persona, Goldthwait traveled to the 2006 Sundance Film Festival as the writer and director of the outrageous “Sleeping Dogs Lie.” (He’d made his debut as a filmmaker with the little-seen but inventively gonzo “Shakes the Clown” in 1991.)
Maybe he should have waited another 15 years before making a follow-up, because his latest, “World’s Greatest Dad,” crushes a boldly funny concept with inert and bloodless filmmaking. As much as I admired the idea behind “Dad,” the film itself just limps along without ever catching fire.
Robin Williams stars as Lance Clayton, a high-school teacher and frustrated novelist. He’s also parent to Kyle (Daryl Sabara, “Spy Kids”), an obnoxious and sex-obsessed adolescent who’s so thoroughly disgusting and insufferable that he’s almost universally despised at the school where Lance also teaches.
Stop reading here if you don’t want to know the big plot twist, because there’s no way to describe the rest of the movie without a spoiler or two:
One night, Kyle accidentally kills himself via auto-erotic asphyxiation. Lance fixes things — including writing an eloquent farewell note — so it looks like Kyle committed suicide. The school paper publishes the phony suicide note, and suddenly Kyle becomes a posthumous hero to the kids who once disdained him. Thrilled that someone finally likes his work, Lance goes back and writes a fake journal for Kyle, and it winds up getting published.
Suddenly, Lance’s life is going great — kids want to take his poetry class, his art-teacher girlfriend Claire (Alexie Gilmore) is ready to publicly acknowledge their relationship and national talk shows are calling for Lance to talk about his tragic loss.
When I describe the plot, it sounds like “World’s Greatest Dad” is a viciously unsentimental black comedy, finding satirical targets in adolescent grief-porn and parental exploitation. And it certainly should be — Goldthwait’s “Sleeping Dogs Lie” began with a shocking (and too weirdly sexual to describe here) plot development and built it into a sharp tale about relationships and honesty.
But “Dad” never makes it off the launching pad. Williams is, blessedly, non-manic this time around, but his funny lines fail to connect. The pacing feels sluggish, the cinematography is blandly non-descript and the whole venture lacks any kind of malicious fizz.
“World’s Greatest Dad” is the first failed film in a long time that’s made me want to see its remake. With a different cast and a sharper script, I could see this material as the basis for a “Heathers”-like darkly farcical character study. This current version, alas, should skip theaters and go directly back to the drawing board.
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