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A dark comedy shows richer shades of Robin Williams’ talent

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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: We honor the life and career of Robin Williams by looking back on some of the late actor’s finest performances.

World’s Greatest Dad (2009)

For grieving fans of the late Robin Williams, World’s Greatest Dad may hit a little too close to home. Here’s a film, after all, whose plot revolves around a tragic death by asphyxiation, and the various ways the public responds to what appears to be a suicide. But if real-world parallels have now complicated the enjoyment one might take from this taboo-teasing comedy, they can’t quite cloud the surprising breadth of poignancy Williams provides it.


In one of his most restrained comic performances, the actor stars as Lance, a creative writing teacher whose world is shattered by the freak-accident demise of his only son—a masturbation mishap involving a tightly coiled belt. Truth be told, Kyle (a terrific Daryl Sabara) was something of an irredeemable cad, prone to tossing around homophobic insults, snapping panty shots of unsuspecting women, and treating just about everyone in his proximity with toxic disdain. Lance, of course, loved him unconditionally, as only a father can love his total shithead of a son. And so to save his offspring from eternal humiliation, he makes the accident look like a suicide, knocking out an eloquent farewell letter. It’s when everyone starts gushing about the hidden depths of their departed classmate that things start getting out of hand, with Lance fabricating a whole library of poetic musings for his posthumously popular kid.

Written and directed by the fearless Bobcat Goldthwait, World’s Greatest Dad is an affront to delicate sensibilities. But it’s also strangely moving, a comedy about the limits of parental devotion. On the one hand, Lance’s lie isn’t completely selfless; there’s sharp irony in the fact that this failed writer finally achieves recognition through words he wrote in the name of his dead child. At heart, however, the man’s grand deception is an act of love—an attempt to retroactively rescue the reputation of his boy, an asshole robbed of the time and opportunity to blossom into a decent person. But by twisting the reality of who Kyle really was, isn’t he basically betraying him? Among other things, World’s Greatest Dad is about how people misremember the dead, putting on rose-colored glasses when confronted with their own mortality.


That particular point resonates strongly in the wake of Williams’ death, when bereaved critics have tossed aside their misgivings about his schmaltzier efforts to reconnect with what they loved about him. Not that it takes a selective memory to appreciate the highlights of the man’s career, including his expertly seriocomic turn in World’s Greatest Dad. The scene of Lance discovering his son’s body may be Williams’ rawest display of on-screen emotion, his manic energy channeled into an explosion of pure grief and shock. And he’s frequently hilarious, too, leaning on a drier wit than the one exhibited in some of his better-known comedies. Those feeling sentimental about this lost entertainer could surely find a warmer and fuzzier nostalgia trip to take. But as a showcase of just how elastic Williams’ talent really was, World’s Greatest Dad is hard to beat.

Availability: World’s Greatest Dad is available on Blu-ray and DVD, which can be obtained from your local video store, and to rent or purchase from the major digital services. It’s also currently streaming on Netflix.