Occasionally, when you're at a film festival, one movie becomes the must-see flick of the fest, work-of-mouth turning into a buzzy, busy babble. The year Super Size Me blew up at Sundance, all you could hear in the lines was "Did you see the documentary about the McDonald's guy. …"; when Juno made a splash at Toronto, everyone asked "Did you see the teen pregnancy movie …?" This year at Sundance, there were weird, hard-to-believe mutterings that the best comedy of the festival also featured a career highlight performance by the written-off-years-ago Robin Williams, a smaller movie called World's Greatest Dad, directed by once-famed freakout stand-up Bobcat Goldthwait. I missed World's Greatest Dad then, but I've finally caught up with it — and I'm incredibly glad I did, because the buzz is right: World's Greatest Dad is hilarious in horrible, awful, amazing ways, and Williams has the kind of comeback role here that other actors would killed for, and does the kind of comeback work that other actors have killed themselves trying, and failing, to attain.
Williams is Lance Clayton, a high school English teacher. Lance tries to write novels, but he's constantly rejected; he tries to connect with his sex-obsessed foul-mouthed son Kyle (Daryl Sabra), but Kyle wants none of it; he's seeing a fellow teacher, Claire (Alexi Gilmore), but she's reticent about taking their relationship public — and, it seems to Lance, the next level. Lance is living, as so many do, a life of quiet desperation, and then something incredibly horrible happens, something shattering and awful and heartbreaking. Which is when the film gets truly hilarious.
That real comedy — the shocked laughter, the tears of shocked hilarity, the I-can't-believe-it jaw-dropping wonder of writer-director Bobcat Goldthwait's film kicks in as Lance turns that tragedy into the way to improve his life. Lance, starting with one lie and then weaving a far-too-intricate web of them, turns that tragedy into opportunity — with his job, with Claire, with his writing. Suddenly, Lance's life is full of opportunity and goodness. And all he has to do is keep lying. And not mind that fact. And not think too much about where the lies come from.
I'm being coy here about the film's plot, but you'll be glad I did — or, rather, glad may not be the right word, as World's Greatest Dad does deal with some rough, real, raw stuff, but at the same time that's where the film's very real comedy and very real sense of character kicks in and makes it as good as it is. Who among us hasn't played for sympathy, a little? Well, Lance plays for sympathy a lot, and soon everyone is dancing to his tune.
You may remember Bobcat Goldthwait from his strangulated, screeching stand-up and work in the Police Academy movies, but between his '80s notoriety and now, he's quietly and confidently become a film maker, one who tackles tough stuff and wrests laughs from matters that would wrestle lesser film makers to the ground. His debut film, Stay, was a sweet, sick strong look at sex and shame; World's Greatest Dad is even better, although neither is for the easily-offended. (And, again, it's amazing how much the easily-offended miss out on, isn't it?) Goldthwait gets good performances out of his actors, and he's not afraid of the camera here — pulling off crane shots and slow-mo and special effects but always, always bringing them back to the story he wants to tell. An extended musical montage — where several characters are haunted by visions of a deceased person, with the departed looking and acting differently in each person's subjective fantasy, is somehow moving, illuminating and both affecting and effective, for example.
And Williams is fearless; it took bravery to take this role and do this film, but it also took skill to execute both Lance's laugh lines and the real moments when he's really connecting to the facts beneath the laughs — how sorrow can destroy us, how weakness can make us even weaker, how being happy is not always the same as being right. Like the under-seen Election, World's Greatest Dad gets how high school is like the real world in miniature, and how the real world can be pretty small, too. Since January, I've been hearing buzz about how World's Greatest Dad gets laughs with edgy, shocking plotting and jokes — and it does — but when I finally saw it, I wasn't prepared for how emotionally involving it was, how ultimately touching, how the laughter gets richer and deeper and more real as the movie goes along. You're going to have to look hard to find World's Greatest Dad — it opens in a handful of theaters this Friday and is available now as a video-on-demand choice — and you're going to have to restrain your initial impulse to look away, but if you can find it, and take it, this strange, scabrous movie earns the buzz it got to stand as one of the best comedies of the year.