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MOVIE REVIEW

World's Greatest Dad

Popularity comes at a price for ‘World’s Greatest Dad’

Robin Williams is a high school poetry teacher who makes his son’s death look like suicide. Robin Williams is a high school poetry teacher who makes his son’s death look like suicide. (Magnolia Pictures)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / September 4, 2009

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In Bobcat Goldthwait’s black comedy “World’s Greatest Dad,’’ Robin Williams plays Lance Clayton, a failed writer and, consequently, a sad-sack high school poetry teacher. His humdrum life turns right-side-up after his son, Kyle (Daryl Sabara), dies during an autoerotic sex act. He makes the death look like a suicide, even concocting an online suicide note and journal entries that endear this obnoxious boy to a staff and student body that never cared for him. Lance, who teaches at Kyle’s school, gains the popularity and respect he’s always craved.

It takes a while for the movie to build to its wicked possibilities and only a few scenes to squander them. In between, “World’s Greatest Dad’’ has one wonderful sequence in which Lance refashions the suicide, composes the note, then shows up at school to a scrum of hugs from his students, while the faces of Kyle’s ghost and Kyle’s meek only friend (Evan Martin) watch in judgment. It’s set to a song whose mantra is “love is simple,’’ and orchestrated with the complexity and style of certain very good music videos. There’s nothing else in the movie like it, which is a shame since it seems to come to Goldthwait so effortlessly.

Goldthwait was famous in the 1980s and early 1990s for a strident sort of neurotic comedy. It was rude and sometimes sick, but it stemmed from insecurities that made him approachable. He’s directed a lot of television (seemingly every episode of Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night talk show) and two other features, of which 1991’s “Shakes the Clown’’ is an outré cult-classic.

The new movie is frustrating. It manages to find something memorably specific in the generic social flotsam of the American high school - the impulse we have to memorialize tragedy with earnest kitsch. Before Kyle’s death, Lance’s poetry class was barren. Suddenly, his room is full of kids reciting banal tributes to this chronically horny stranger.

But “World’s Greatest Dad’’ can’t determine how badly it wants to be in bad taste. When Lance stops at a newsstand to weep at a rack of dirty magazines that remind him of his dead son, you hope the movie will keep aiming for that kind of ribaldry. Instead, the film focuses on Lance’s rivalry with a tall, sexy English instructor (Henry Simmons) for the attention of perky teacher (Alexie Gilmore). It’s not bad, but it’s also pat, juvenile, and not nearly as interesting as the mischievous satire you hope for. At times, the film recalls some amalgam of “Heathers’’ and “Election,’’ but its talons don’t draw the same blood.

One problem is that Kyle is such an excellent brat that you miss him long after he’s gone. The character brilliantly slips between the cracks of school archetypes - a bully’s nastiness meets a loner’s neediness - so the boy feels if not entirely normal then certainly relatable, like Goldthwait in his standup days. Sabara did time in three “Spy Kids’’ movies, but that seems to have no bearing on his ability to conjure snideness with a glance. He actually bears an uncanny resemblance to an adolescent Eminem, whose pushy, taunting raps you can imagine Kyle writing had he any real talent.

Williams gamely fills the void Sabara leaves. His trouble as a movie star has always been his shameless pleading for our approval. It often exceeds the contours of actual human ache and enters a more distastefully desperate realm. Lance is pitiful, but, for once, the character’s need to be adored doesn’t feel like the actor’s.

Williams is especially good in his scenes with Mitzi McCall as a reclusive geriatric neighbor. Their warm natural rapport doesn’t entirely jibe with the half-hearted circus going on outside her cluttered apartment. But it does illustrate that for a man who once thrived on the far fringe of normalcy, Goldthwait has mellowed into a sentimental softie.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston .com/movienation.

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Bobcat Goldtwait and Robin Williams

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Geoff Edgers talks to Bobcat Goldthwait (left) about directing "World's Greatest Dad."

WORLD’S GREATEST DAD

Written and directed by:

Bobcat Goldthwait

Starring: Robin Williams, Alexie Gilmore, Daryl Sabara, Henry Simmons, Evan Martin, and Mitzi McCall

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 99 minutes

Rated: R (language, crude and sexual content, some drug use and disturbing images)

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