The death and posthumous sanctification of Michael Jackson lends an air of timeliness to World’s Greatest Dad, Bobcat Goldthwait’s savagely funny, unexpectedly touching exploration of the human need to idealize and romanticize the dead. Jackson at least left behind a legacy of great music and exhilarating performances. Goldthwait’s unlikely martyr, an obnoxious 15-year-old played with uncompromising belligerence by Spy Kids alum Daryl Sabara, leaves behind only a long trail of homophobic/homoerotic insults and 15 years of general misanthropy.
A gloriously restrained Robin Williams plays a high-school teacher whose literary ambitions have only amounted to an overflowing pile of rejection letters. He’s even less successful on the home front; even for a 15-year-old, Williams’ hellspawn son (Sabara) is obnoxious and hateful, devoting his very limited creativity to figuring out novel ways to masturbate. When Sabara dies during an ill-fated act of autoeroticism, Williams channels his frustrated energy into writing an eloquent suicide note for his son. Eventually, that leads him to ghostwrite a fake diary that lets him rewrite history and transform his hateful offspring into a beautiful, sensitive soul too pure for a corrupt world.
Dad is wickedly observant about the way the dead become blank canvasses upon which the grieving can project their fantasies, insecurities, and aspirations. In life, Sabara is a sentient ball of hate and perversion; in death, he becomes all things to all people. He ceases to be a human being and becomes a malleable symbol of squandered potential and the beautiful suffering of teen life. Williams lends enormous pathos to a man whose literary dreams come true in the worst way imaginable; he now has the curious distinction of having starred in Dead Poets Society and the anti-Dead Poets Society. The film’s tonal shifts between vulgar comedy and heartfelt drama aren’t always smooth, but that doesn’t keep it from being simultaneously funny and deeply sad. With Dad and his last writer-director effort, Sleeping Dogs Lie, Goldthwait has accomplished the formidable feat of making wry, tender, fundamentally sweet comedies about the human condition that just happen to center on acts of autoerotic asphyxiation and bestiality, respectively. That isn’t easy.