Movies: World's Greatest Dad ****
(15A, general release)
Robin Williams has been in the wars of late. After falling off the wagon six or seven years ago while shooting in a remote part of Alaska, he split up with his wife of 19 years in 2008 and last year underwent serious heart surgery (he is now the proud owner of a pig's aortic valve).
More germanely, he has appeared in some real stinkers, and the title of this film summons up the worst excesses of Patch Adams. Happily, World's Greatest Dad is steeped in irony and bleak humour, and is anything but the feelgood schmaltz bomb you might expect.
The film is written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, the legendary stand-up comic and writer whose debut feature Sleeping Dogs Lie attracted very positive notices in 2006. While that film had a winning manic energy, World's Greatest Dad is an altogether more accomplished and coherent affair, and is graced by Robin Williams' best performance in years. He is Lance Clayton, a failed writer and put-upon high school English teacher whose unsavoury teenage son is the bane of his life.
Teenage boys are a tricky bunch at the best of times, but Kyle Clayton is obnoxious above and beyond the call of duty. This may relate to the fact that his mother ran off with another man some years previously, but pat psychological explanations don't make him any easier to love. He's selfish, rude, obsessed with hardcore porn and a social outcast at his school -- the same school where his dad works, which only adds to the problem.
Lance is devastated when he comes home late one evening to find that Kyle has managed to strangle himself while engaged in a spot of auto-eroticism. To save his boy's posthumous blushes, he stages things to look like a suicide, even composing an eloquent suicide note. The problem is it's a little too eloquent, because when a copy of it is leaked around the school, all the students who wouldn't give Kyle the time of day when he was alive now elevate him to the status of saint. And when Lance fakes a diary it attracts media attention, making Kyle -- and Lance -- famous.
As you might have gathered, this is jet-black comedy, but it's not merely grim for its own sake, and Goldthwait's film raises lots of discomforting issues. Not all the chances it takes come off, but there's a refreshing recklessness to the whole thing. The ensemble acting is great, but Williams' unfussy and wearily calm performance is a thing of beauty, allowing you to feel sympathy for a misguided but essentially decent man.