On Movies: 'World's Greatest Dad' builds on a single joke
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon Sept. 3, 2009 - Comedian-filmmaker Robert Francis "Bobcat" Goldthwait does not make feel-good movies. His two best known feature films as a director are "Shakes the Clown" (1991), the story of a nasty tempered alcoholic clown who hates children, and "Sleeping Dogs Lie" (2006), which feeds upon a hard-to-contradict premise: If, in a moment of adolescent folly, you acted in a sexual manner toward a pet, you shouldn't tell your fiance about it.
Now comes "World's Greatest Dad," the story of the post-mortem near-canonization of a very unpleasant teenage boy. The dark comedy has its horrifically funny moments, which include the macabre image generated in our imaginations when we learn the boy is dead and quickly realize how he died. But most of its characters are so thinly painted and its story so single-minded that after a while "World's Greatest Dad" seems to be telling the same joke over and over again.
Still, it's a pretty good joke, if a grim one: Death can do wonders for a person's reputation.
Lance Clayton (Robin Williams, with a perpetual grimace) is a single father who tries his best to get along with his son, Kyle. But Kyle (Daryl Sabara), hates his father. That's hardly unusual - the only teenagers who don't hate their fathers are girls, who hate their mothers. But Kyle seems to hate virtually everyone else as well, almost as much as they hate him.
Kyle's classmates treat him terribly, pointedly ignoring him when they're not shoving him around. We really want to understand and sympathize with Kyle, as we would with any kid who was being bullied. But Kyle is such a jerk, particularly in his foul-mouthed, sexually explicit overtures to girls (and women), that it's hard not to think he deserves to be bullied. Every time we think we're going to see a redeeming side of Kyle, the boy does something else to prove that he is a rotten human being, and stupid to boot. When he dies a stupid death, we do not mourn him. But his schoolmates do.
Kyle's father, who teaches English at Kyle's high school, finds Kyle's body and manages to turn Kyle's absurd and ugly death into the tragic passing of a brilliant young man too good for this world. The father fakes an eloquent suicide note and pens a journal of poignant philosophical musings, which become a sacred text at the school. Now that he is dead, Kyle the scorned becomes Kyle the revered.
The worship of Kyle becomes something approaching a religion, with his father, formerly a sad sack, as its prophet. And the prophet profits. Respect, love and prosperity come Lance's way; all his dreams come true. He becomes a hero -- as long as he keeps on lying about what kind of person Kyle really was. It seems only a matter of time before Lance starts passing the collection plate and going into television.
The movie ends in a perhaps satirically overblown climax that suggests that Goldthwait is not completely disillusioned with every single specimen of humankind, just a staggeringly large percentage of it. If you prefer a more positive view of humanity, you might prefer "Taking Woodstock," another intermittently entertaining movie with a much sunnier outlook on life.
Opens Sept. 4
The Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, make singular feature films that explore the lives of ordinary or marginal people in desperate situations. Their cinema verite visual style is flat and matter-of-fact, refusing to give us overt clues and cues as to what we should think about what's happening on the screen.
In their latest movie, "Lorna's Silence," for example, there are almost no cuts within a scene, no reaction shots to show us what one character is thinking while another is speaking, no extreme close-ups to highlight something in the scene that might have literal or symbolic importance. (Oh, he has a gun! Oh, there's a crucifix!). The camera just follows the characters, and the very skillful Belgian filmmakers create the illusion of giving us an unbiased and unpredictable version of something that actually happened.
In "Lorna's Silence," a young Albanian woman named Lorna (Arta Dobroshi) marries a Liege drug addict to get Belgian citizenship. What she will do with that citizenship is part of a criminal conspiracy that involves her ending the marriage but keeping the citizenship.
There appear to be two ways to end the marriage: divorcing the husband or killing him. As Lorna gets to know the man, and helps him stop taking drugs, she comes to favor divorce. But divorce would take a month or two, and the thugs who have hatched the citizenship scheme come down on the side of murder. How Lorna deals with this dilemma, as greed and fear come into conflict with a growing sense of humanity, is the central issue and plot engine of this movie.
"Lorna's Silence" is an interesting movie that moves fairly quickly to an ending that, appropriately, is the beginning of something else. It is more plot driven than some of the Dardenne's earlier works, for example the stunning "The Son," which was shown at the 2003 St. Louis International Film Festival.
"The Son," about a grieving father who finds himself in close daily contact with the young man who killed his son, simply sets up the premise and then creates the illusion of letting events unfold as they may. This creates mystery and a powerful tension, a sense that anything could happen at any time, that no one is in control of the universe within the frames of the film. "Lorna's Silence" has less of that tension.
Opens Sept. 4
Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.