Beware! Here lie many a spoiler!
Twice now I have tried to write this entry. Twice now I eventually decided to scrap those drafts, but hearing today that Robin Williams died, I felt compelled to watch Bobcat Goldthwait’s “World’s Greatest Dad” again. It’s funny, but the reason I scrapped both those attempts were because the first time I saw this movie I thought it was one movie, and I wrote my entry from that perspective. I watched the movie a second time, and realized that it might be a very different movie than what I saw the first time. I was left confused. Now, this third time that I watched “World’s Greatest Dad,” I realize that it was both, the movie I saw the first time, and the movie I saw the second time. Funny thing is, I was surprised how much I loved the movie both times. Oh, and the third time… well, let’s get to that.
Robin Williams was brilliant, funny, a multi-faceted actor, worthy of tremendous respect… but I never followed his career, as would have a dedicated fan. There are lots of people to be fans of, and we can’t be fans of everyone, no matter how brilliant they are. We’ve only got so much room in our hearts for true fandom. But I was moved by his passing. I, like Robin Williams, am a creative professional, and one who has struggled not only with depression, but with suicidal thoughts; thoughts that stopped once I started living an authentic life. Add to this the irony that I have also witnessed a hanging first-hand, so this hit me in a very personal way. I keenly felt the dread of his death, the despair he must have felt is one I know, and yet I am left stunned because there is really only one reason I never shoved a gun in my mouth (I mean, besides never having owned one–and hanging myself well, that just wasn’t for me), and that is that I have always had this odd curiosity… I mean, I want to know what’s around the bend. I always stuck around because I didn’t want to miss whatever was next. I guess I had hope that things could be better. What I don’t understand is this: for Robin Williams things were better. He was successful, influential, wealthy, a creative man who was lauded for his creativity. He didn’t have the same curiosity that I have had to keep him going. Don’t get me wrong, I know the “success and money can’t buy you happiness” bit… but I’m not sure I buy it, I mean, let me just say this: poverty and failure are the currency that can buy an awful lot of misery.
The first time I saw “World’s Greatest Dad” I saw it alone. I found it funny in a dark way, but what I really saw was a profound and moving film hiding under layers of dark yet strangely realistic and believable problems. The second time I saw “World’s Greatest Dad” was with a friend, and we laughed our asses off. I began to feel silly about the first entry I wrote about the film’s profoundly moving messages and its surprising depth, so I scrapped it and wrote a second. Upon hearing Williams died, I watched it again, and I still don’t know what to say, but since I feel compelled a third time to say something, I set myself to writing, albeit loose and stream of consciousness writing. The real catch in writing an entry on the profoundly emotional aspects of this movie is the danger of hearing Goldthwait deflate any depth or profundity with sardonic (and dishonest) dismissal, but I guess I’m gonna take that risk.
For a start, I just want to say that I truly love this movie, I relate to the film, its characters, and their dilemmas, and all of that took me by surprise. Sight unseen, I figured I might enjoy the movie, even though I was going into it knowing nothing about it, but the movie took me by surprise at every turn. That was what I most enjoyed about the movie was that I genuinely had no idea where it was going to go, and more than once I was shocked by the turns of the events in the film. That said, it’s a hard film to watch, and one has to trust it to get through it. For some reason, I trusted this movie. The part of this film that is most difficult to get past is that Kyle, son of Lance (played by Williams) is a genuinely horrid little trollish asshole, and watching him is not funny, it’s stressful, and every bit as annoying as having an asshole teenager of your own. This film makes an excellent case for birth control. The first time I watched this movie I saw it with a friend who was not up to it, he did not trust it, and he not only could not bear to watch Kyle, he also found the father (Lance) hard to bear as he felt that Lance himself was a beaten down loser… yet I sensed there might be more going on under the surface than what we see.
Let’s talk about William’s character Lance. From the start we get the point that this man is a dreamer of some ambition, but he has either been beaten down by life, or he simply never really had what it took to get the break he needed. Lance is one of those sad dreamers who seems to be dreaming of things that are just beyond his reach, of things that he isn’t quite ready to achieve, and that in and of itself is utterly tragic. I found his struggles and desires noble, even if the man himself was utterly ineffectual.
Lance’s son, Kyle, on the other hand is a total prick, unredeemable. He’s a twisted and angry pervert, a total twat, a shitty little fuck. Think I’m being too hard on him? Then you haven’t seen the movie. The character has seemingly been created to be simply unsympathetic at every turn. His poor little friend Andrew confuses us as we simply cannot work out why he is friends with this asshole Kyle. The other characters are painted with equally enigmatic, repelling, yet realistic brushstrokes. For example, Lance’s girlfriend in the movie is a hilariously self-centered woman, and played with such charm that she rings utterly true in every scene.
We realize early on that this film is about Lance’s need to connect, to be loved and accepted, to gain friends and attention through his writing, and likable as he is, he lacks the charm to succeed in our weird little world. As a frustrated dreamer myself, I found his struggles to be panful to watch. Lance looks for acceptance in all the wrong places. He looks to be accepted in the world of publishing, he looks to be accepted by his horrid self-centered girlfriend, he hopes to be accepted by his students and fellow faculty, and where he most intimately seeks acceptance is with his wretched son, who shoots him down at every turn. This is heartbreaking to watch, and every time he tries to talk to or connect with his son we are left asking “why is he even bothering?” He is bothering because he craves connection. To further drive this point home, we see that Lance is not accepted among his peers, oh they are polite to him, but it is known with every scene that he is at arm’s length. Even at work, as a teacher, he is an unpopular teacher teaching an unpopular subject. As one who struggles for social acceptance, I took this movie as a personal metaphor, and his pains and frustrations seemed all too real to me.
As you can see from reading this, this is not an easy movie to watch. The humor, though hilarious if you’re up to it, is dark and caught in that strange and unsettling middle ground between grossly vulgar and sublimely subtle. Sure, at times it’s crass and vulgar (through Kyle), but that is an essential aspect of the character, and even of the very worthwhile message, but what makes it hard to watch is how utterly defeated Lance is at every turn, and though he has been shrunken and demoralized by life… he plugs along ever hopeful, and God bless him for it, too.
At about the time we become worn down by poor Lance’s plight, at about the time begin to realize we can’t tolerate his son Kyle for one more second,at about the time we swing our thumbs over the “stop” button on our remotes… everything changes, and to Goldthwait’s infinite credit, not a moment too soon. The pacing is ingenious. The way Goldthwait tests your patience yet keeps you hoping and interested, and then hits you with the shock is pure genius.
Lance comes home to find his son Kyle asphyxiated. The irony of this is now unbearable. We saw earlier the film that Kyle enjoyed auto-erotic asphyxiation, yet it is still an absolute shock when Lance walks in to find his son dead. And what is even more shocking is the horror and heartbreak of the moment. We see the agony through William’s performance, and as much as we all hated Kyle, as much as we were all meant to hate Kyle, the scene is utterly tragic in the way it is played out, and to my heart, probably all the more tragic for the complicated and conflicted nature of the tragedy. The father, who tried and tried, who deep down knew his kid was a total asshole… loved him unconditionally. The Father, the “World’s Greatest Dad,” hides all signs of Kyle’s masturbatory death, pulls up his sons pants, moves the body into the closet where he makes it look like a sucicide via hanging. Knowing now that this was how William’s died, the scene becomes all the more surreal and heartbreaking… and, I might add, all the more moving knowing that in his real life, his own loved ones had to suffer the same trauma.
At this point his self-centered girlfriend turns his back on him, having only been in this for the good times, she cannot bear the real human feelings of another. Set apart, friendless, no son, no girlfriend, Lance turns to his neighbor, who we only saw briefly a few scenes earlier, but we sensed right away that this was a lonely woman, a spinster. He brings her pot brownies, and invites himself in to talk, and we realize the poor woman is a hoarder, but a kind and lonely soul. They make a date to get together and watch zombie movies, as both of them love them and so desperately need a friend.
Though his initial cover-up of his son’s death is done out of pure love, what happens next begins to become clouded. He wants to see his son redeemed, at least in death. The movie’s turning point, oddly enough, is not the death of his son, the turning point hinged upon the suicide note Lance had written for his son a few scenes back. Ultimately, this suicide note is published in the school paper, and Kyle begins to become an icon among the very people (his classmates) who hated him most–and for good reason, I hasten to add. Of course, from this point the movie and the character’s motives become complicated and even conflicted. Lance begins doing things that we can’t help but question, including writing a bogus posthumous journal when it is suggested that it might be well-receieved. At that point we begin to realize that Lance is still writing this out of love for his son, but we begin to see that he may have other motives. Lance, through the death of his son, suddenly has a reason to write, he has a built-in audience, and at last a way to express himself… a way to feel wanted. We also wonder if perhaps Lance is no longer writing this out of love for his son, but perhaps to recreate him as the son he wished he had. It would be easy for a cynic to dismiss what Lance does, or for a romantic to only see the noble aspects, but to me it is far more interesting to see the duality and conflict in action.
Lance’s life changes dramatically with the publication of this journal, and he suddenly has the girl, an audience, popularity, and a platform from which to express himself. He now has everything he ever wanted. But there is one person who remains on the outside of all this, Andrew, the awkward kid who was Kyle’s only friend. He is the voice of Lance’s conscience, and the voice of his heart, as it turns out.
As the movie unravels, as Lance unravels, he begins to crack. He even stands up his neighbor, the hoarder, in favor of his selfish girlfriend (who is now all about Lance now that he is getting attention).
We are left wondering where this is going to go. At this point the one thing I knew I could rely on was that Bobcat Goldthwait was capable of going anywhere and ending this film in any number of ways. There is real tension in the climactic scene, when Lance is called upon to give a speech as the school library is being renamed after his son. Goldtwhait’s brilliance shines most clearly in the moment when Lance takes the podium, I was on the edge of my seat… having no idea what Lance was going to do.
He tells the truth, and becomes even more reviled than ever before. Right there, before the assembled school, he tells them his son was a douchebag, and that he had written the letter and journal. His sudden popularity is left in ruins with this confession.
What an ending that was, but to Goldthwait’s infinite credit, the film does not stop there, the following two scenes cemented the film for me. Williams walks through the crowd, slapped, given the finger, scowled at and despised, but he steps out into the hall alone, suddenly joyous, unburdened, and he strips off his clothes as he runs down the hall towards the swimming pool, naked, he climbs the diving board and comes to a conclusion that brought me to tears:
“I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not, the worst thing in life is to end up with people who make you feel all alone.”
And those, my friends, are words to live by, and suddenly this film becomes affirming, joyous, and perhaps even romantic. In my own life I have done the same thing as Lance time and again, I have sought acceptance and friendship in the wrong people and in the wrong places. The fact that this movie dealt with that very human dilemma moved me to tears, deep and gratifying tears. Rarely have I come across any movie that has taught me so valuable a lesson, a movie that has comforted me, and I believe, has changed me for the better. Thank you so much, Bobcat Goldthwait.
And here is what I am going to do for you, dear readers, I am not going to tell you what the final scene is, but I will tell you this, it is so very real, and so very heartwarming, so very honest and beautiful, that I just can’t bear to give it away.
This is a film that needs to be seen by every loner, every frustrated dreamer, and indeed by every social misfit, and by every soul whose problems are not those mundane and tired troubles that concern the characters in most modern movies. Be patient, and trust “World’s Greatest Dad,” it’s totally worth it, and like Lance who loved his son unconditionally, I loved this film in the same way. Thank you Bobcat, thank you so much. And I am terribly sorry for the loss of your dear friend, Robin Williams.