There's a twinkle of hope lurking behind the dark misery of World's Greatest Dad, looking pretty similar to the glint in Robin Williams' eye that was so appealing in the early days, and has only lent to his sense of arrogance lately. And while the old WIlliams isn't exactly back in this movie-- age has taken its toll, after all-- he brings the same fundamental likability, playing a guy who has painted his life into an impossible corner, and taking one big risk to get himself out.
It's hard to write about this film because of a massive plot twist that happens halfway through and determines the events of the film's second half. But by writing about only the first half, the film sounds repulsive, the kind of suburban satire that stews in its own pessimism and offers no way out. So just bear with me as I tell you about Kyle (Daryl Sabara), the most unlikable, selfish, waste of space teenager in cinema history. His interests range from masturbating to bullying his only friend to completely dismissing his devoted dad Lance (Williams). The film's first half hour is spent sinking to Kyle's level, watching him curse and whine and reject his dad so frequently that it becomes almost physically painful to watch.
But like I said, it gets better. Moments with Kyle are interrupted occasionally by glimpses into Lance's life as a poetry teacher at Kyle's high school, where most of the kids would rather take creative writing with suave, athletic Mike (Henry Simmons), and even Lance's hot-to-trot girlfriend Claire (Alexie Gilmore) seems only fleetingly interested. Still, Lance trudges on with unfailing optimism, harboring fantasies of finally getting one of his novels published, and treating his son as if he's the doting kid Lance really deserves.
When Lance's life begins to turn around, the movie's sarcasm turns into full-fledged satire, with everyone in the high school proving themselves easy marks for the scam Lance somewhat accidentally starts. It would be easy for the film to take a nasty turn here, but writer-director Bobcat Goldthwait has a clear empathy for his characters, the middle-of-the-country types that Alexander Payne is usually so good at creating. Kids are nasty and people do awful things, Goldthwait seems to be saying, but they can be entertaining and oh-so-human too.
Unfortunately the film, both in its satire and in Lance's development as a character, falls apart a bit toward the end. Epiphanies and music montages are inserted where they aren't really earned, and just when you think it might retain some subtletly, the Queen and David Bowie duet "Under Pressure" shows up to take us home. Williams is great in these final scenes, but the screenplay hasn't gotten us there with him, and his bravery in the film's last third is muted, though effective. World's Greatest Dad was never really going to be a great film, but with a clearer finale, it really might have come close. Still, as a reminder of Williams' power as a performer, and as another intriguing look into Goldthwait's strange mind, World's Greatest Dad is worth suffering through that first half hour.