I watched the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “Oklahoma!” recently, because I am temporarily living in Oklahoma. There’s a scene in the middle in which the hero, Curly, tries to convince the villain, Jud, that he ought to kill himself, because then everyone would feel bad for him and remember him fondly. It’s a bizarre scene, and from that point forward, I was on Jud’s side. What kind of a hero wins his lady’s hand by encouraging his rivals to commit suicide?
Robin William’s new movie, “World’s Greatest Dad,” seems to be an indirect rumination on that scene in “Oklahoma!” Wlliams is the single father of the worst son in the world (“Spy Kid” Darryl Sabara.) The in-joke is that it doesn’t take much to be a great dad if your kid is cute, charming, smart, funny, or talented; if he’s a manipulative, vulgar, porn-obsessed jerk with a potty mouth and no friends, well, that takes some hardcore parenting skills.
Not that Williams is really all that great a dad. He has some serious self-confidence issues, and the funniest moments in “World’s Greatest Dad” are watching these play out. His poetry class has four students in it — “but the few who take it get so much out of it,” he tells the principal. He listens to Bruce Hornsby and has written seven rejected novels. He has a secret girlfriend, and suspects she might have another secret boyfriend.
He lets his godawful son push him around, defy him, insult his girlfriend, and pretty much do and get whatever he wants. You think this would make the rotten kid happy, but this kid never seems happy. Sabara is so vulgar and obnoxious and completely without a single redeemable quality that I don’t doubt that many who rent this movie based on its saccharine title will turn it off inside the first half hour. Who would want to spend any more time than necessary with this kid?
But that’s kind of the point. And when Sabara accidentally kills himself in about the most revolting way possible, Williams, because he wants so desperately to be a good dad, makes it look like a suicide. And because he wants so desperately to be a poet, a writer, a thinker and a misunderstood soul, he transfers all of these characteristics onto his dead son, composing first a suicide note that gets published in the school newspaper, and then a full-blown diary, which gets published and lands him a spot on a day-time talk show.
“World’s Greatest Dad” gets everything right in its painful first half, convincingly painting a portrait of the World’s Worst Son and his hapless, helpless dad. It’s disappointing that when it gets to its payoff, it goes all slack and weak on us. The more the students and faculty at Sabara’s school consider him a martyr, an idol, and a mentor, the more “World’s Greatest Dad” feels like the cheesy wish fulfillment dream of a cheesy character in a cheesy Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. The point of “World’s Greatest Dad” is sharp – we transfer all kinds of things onto dead people, make martyrs and heroes out of them, reconstructing them in our imaginations to be what we want them to be, and in the process, more often than not, jettison anything and everything they actually were. (Remember Michael Jackson? Do really – do you remember him?) But the execution of the point could use a bit of sharpening. It would be better if the people who idealize Sabara’s memory, like the gay football player and the goth queen and the conscience-stricken principal, felt more like real people and less like stereotypes and caricatures.
“World’s Greatest Dad” is directed by Bobcat Goldthwaite, who I remember primarily as the growly, neurotic cadet in the “Police Academy” movies. He seemed funny, savage, and just barely human back then. Now he makes movies with the same characteristics.
- if you like the dark, cynical, vulgar and over-the-top parts of dark comedy more than the comedy parts.
- if you’re really sick of all the Michael Jackson memorialization.
- if you work with teens, and think you’ve already met the world’s most obnoxious teenager.
- if you thought “Oh, Robin Williams! I loved him in Patch Adams! I’ll probably love this movie too!”
- if you’d rather NOT meet the world’s most obnoxious teenager, even if he dies halfway through the film.