If you're anything like me, the name Robin Williams is enough to send you fleeing from a theater, inspiring visions of manic, self-involved attempts at comedy alternating with unbearable sentimentality. Append that dread name to a film titled World's Greatest Dad, and it would seem to be a recipe for disaster. But add to that mix this bit of information: written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait.
You probably don't know what to do with that. I didn't. But Goldthwait, the '80s-era oddball stand-up comedian, has quietly reinvented himself as a behind-the-camera player in recent years, and this most high-profile project is a sneaky piece of work.
Williams plays Lance Clayton, an English teacher at an upscale private high school who teaches an elective poetry class. I don't know if this is an intentional reference to Dead Poet's Society or not, but, if so, it's a fakeout: Lance is no inspirational leader of young people. He's a single dad with a creepy, antisocial 15-year-old son who seems to hate him, which is at least different from the apathy of his students.
Lance's poetry class is about to be canceled as more students drift over to the creative writing class taught by a new ex-jock teacher who has just been published in The New Yorker. And Lance fears his fetching faculty paramour may be heading in the same direction. Making things even worse: His son, already on academic probation at the school, is now threatened with expulsion after making a lewd comment to another student and inspiring a beatdown from her boyfriend.
If all this seems to be heading toward redemption for Lance and son, well, it doesn't get there the way you might expect. Roughly midway through, a dramatic incident, Lance's reaction to it, and the snowballing aftermath send the movie careening down a different, nervier path that's hard to write about without giving too much away. Suffice it to say, World's Greatest Dad emerges as a Heathers-like high school satire, but from an adult perspective; a misanthropic poison dart aimed at sanctimony and forced emotion.