On Bobcat Goldthwait’s World’s Greatest Dad (2009)

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by Jacqueline Valencia

Maybe one day, far into the future, I might have picked up this film. I’ve always loved Bobcat Goldthwait, but I haven’t seen any Robin Williams films in a long time. Reviews of his latest weren’t altogether great so I didn’t go out of my way. Yet after I’d heard of Robin Williams’s death (it came up on twitter as all news does first these days), I felt like something had hit me in the gut. I found many people saying the same thing, so the ridiculousness of mourning someone I didn’t know personally was weird, but it connected with the sad ephemera of the day. It’s like a really black cloud came over and just sat there above my desk. Williams’s death was surprisingly unsurprising. He’s always been open about his depression, but oh dear was I ever sad to know that depression took him.

TMI: I’m not going to assume I know what demons were haunting Williams and I don’t know any part of the why or how. I just know that I’ve been in my own dark places and they’re scary for me. To the sufferer there’s nothing outside of them and they’re beasts. People will assume so much of you: that you want to feel that way or be that way, but no. They will assume you can come out of it just by smiling. But some of us smile to make the questions and rationalizations stop. Others try their best to make others laugh for the same reason. Often it’s a combination. But there’s the ephemeral connector again. Depression is a liar and a cheat. It kills and in this instance it hit many hard.

Thus the triggers were littering the social feeds and the assumptions were grand. I had to get off of the computer because it was getting to be a little too much for my own head. In the great sunshine of the today, I took my cat for a leashed walk (that’s right, I’m one of “those people”), and took my kids to have some Church’s Chicken. My son grew curious about the food there since I told them my stories about living in Dallas and loving the chicken (I had jalapeno cheese bombers this time though). Anyways, as everyone settled in the house for the day, I decided I’d continue a Robin Williams marathon. Last night I saw The Birdcage and today I saw Bobcat Goldthwait’s World’s Greatest Dad (both were on netflix). I wasn’t expecting much, but woah. I think I should have prepared myself by reading the synopsis first.

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Robin Williams plays Lance, a teacher of poetry, and failed writer, and a single father to Kyle (Daryl Sabara – Spy Kids). Kyle isn’t a likeable guy: he’s a foul-mouthed, teenaged pervert who is a pain to both his school and his father. Lance loves his son and tries sometimes to connect with him to no avail. Then one night, Lance finds his son has caused himself a humiliating death. In a work of paternal love and understanding, Lance stages an apparent suicide for him and writes a suicide note. Unfortunately, the note gets leaked to the school. This causes Lance’s world to change for the better because the note he had written was so eloquent and well written that it ends up making Kyle sound like a misunderstood soul. As Lance’s world gets better, the lies get bigger, and eventually everyone thinks of Kyle as a poet hero.

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At the beginning I couldn’t stand the characters. Lance is a dad who lets his son walk all over him. He lets everyone walk all over him. His girlfriend Claire (Alexie Gilmore) is a leech who strings people along until she finds someone better. Things seem to kind of coast through a world of sad people until Kyle’s death. And even then, the people don’t get better, they get worse. People who barely looked at or often bullied Kyle, start saying these beautiful things about him, and doing good things in Kyle’s honour. Only one person questions it all, and it’s Andrew (Evan Martin), Kyle’s only friend and the one person who knew him well. Andrew was his friend despite the fact that Kyle was an asshole (in turn Kyle shelteredAndrew at his place to keep him from his drunk mother).

There are also some interesting cameos in here including Goldthwait himself, Tom Kenny (Spongebob Squarepants), and Krist Novoselic.

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Penned by Goldthwait, the script is dark, clever, and ballsy. In his writing and his direction, Goldthwait manages to make his audience connect with characters we probably wouldn’t have given the time of day beforehand. It’s a harsh honest view of how connections are formed through both honesty and falsehoods, and in this case, it’s the post-mortem cult. Every day people die, but if there is a great or tragic story behind them, they become the stuff of mythology. The stories become bigger and the people that formulate them become bigger as a result. It’s an interesting insight. In the end, the story unfolds in a predictable way, but the resolution gives our main characters an exposure of truth and new meaning. The truth is often a hard pill to swallow, but there is a new light in its effect.

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The weirdest thing about watching it, besides the talk of depression and suicide that permeates the film, is Robin Williams’s performance. He’s always shined in serious roles, but there was something earthy in his work here. He’s plays it straight, but his quirkiness boils to the surface in his eyes and subtle one-liners. Williams mannerisms elicit a peak into a brimming catharsis that dwells just beneath his character’s surface. He’s a man living in that isolation that only the lonely ones of the world acknowledge. The superficial pretends it’s special in the tales spun around its mask. Take off the mask and we’re all the same blood and guts living with the axiom that we’re not unique snowflakes. No one has a monopoly on existential pain, but it is a uniquely palpable pain nonetheless. There’s a scene where Williams takes off all of his clothes, smiles at the ether beyond the camera, and dives into the school pool. In light of the recent circumstances, this scene made me bawl and as he rose up, liberated, out of the water, the prescience of the moment was too much. With all the talk of suicide being a cowardly solution (yes, he had a family and a world of friends, but that doesn’t cure depression): Let’s understand and truly try to make everyone know, that depression, like all mental illness, is a medical disease. No one is immune.

World’s Greatest Dad is a dark comedy with tough guts and it’s a hard one to watch this week, but I do highly recommend it. I watched Mork and Mindy religiously. Mork made me laugh so hard. When I found out that Christopher Reeve and Robin Williams were best friends, I often dreamed of meeting my heroes, Superman and Mork, one day, (This article sums up my feelings on that show: To the kids who watched him in his first defining role, Williams proved that weirdness wasn’t just O.K. — it was amazing ). As he became a bigger and brighter star, I kept track, often watching stand up routines on video. I was a big fan of him in One Hour Photo, one of the creepiest performances I’ve ever seen.

It seems I’ve been writing a lot of thought pieces on my personal blog about people who I consider heroes who have passed on. This is what happens every day to many people, but it seems odd as some of us get older. Heroes die giving us evidence of the harsh realities of time and how much more we have to do before our time is up. I like to think that Robin Williams was like Mork in many ways. Oral obituaries on him by those who knew him well repeat a certain thread of thought: Williams, although he was a genius at making people laugh, and a great talent in many ways, he was a generous man who was always ready to give people a hand. They say he was kind and ready for the stage at all times. Mork was sweet, curious, and always ready to give of himself, even though he was out of this world.

No, man. He might have found no other way out of his head, but that Mork part of Williams still gives me hope for myself and the people I love who face the depressive cycle.  There’s a light there because there are people who exist in the here and now that can bring the biggest smiles just by doing this:

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Off to watch more Robin Williams for the evening, but not sure I’ll review more of his films as I go through the marathon.

(John Ritter is in the audience in here laughing his head off <3)

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