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World's Greatest Dad

Director Bobcat Goldthwait
With Robin Williams, Daryl Sabara and Morgan Murphy.
Released 10 September

There are still a few months of 2010 to go, but the way things stand it looks as if Robin Williams will have the distinction of starring in the best comedy of the year and the worst comedy of the year—and they're both about fatherhood.

The worst was the excruciating Old Dogs, which came out in March. I'm trying to blot it out of my memory, but I know it included scenes of Williams flying a jet pack and being attacked by penguins. The best is World's Greatest Dad, a low-key indie film that was made for a fraction of Old Dogs' budget, but which has more wit in its opening scene than its predecessor had from beginning to end.

Williams plays a failed author who has just completed his fifth unpublished novel. His day job as a small-town high school poetry teacher isn't going much better, and he suspects that his younger girlfriend, another teacher, doesn't want to get too serious.

The other cross he has to bear is the revoltingly lazy and obnoxious teenage son he raises on his own (Daryl Sabara, who has come a long way since he co-starred in Spy Kids). One of the film's subtleties is that the boy is presented as the most loathsome creature ever to walk the face of the Earth, and yet he's also completely believable, and his relationship with his father is probably about average for an adolescent male.

And then, about 40 minutes into the film... well, I'm not going to say. It's tempting, but World's Greatest Dad is one of those rare releases that really is better the less you know about it. All I'll reveal is that there are several twists in the tale, and they all have to do with Williams's secret plan to turn his despicable offspring into the most popular boy in school. Bit by bit, he goes further and further, and the film examines whether it can ever be justified to perpetrate an outrageous con as long as it makes other people happy. Beyond that, you'll have to trust me that this is a perfectly constructed, daringly dark, but ultimately heart-warming triumph.

A curious fact about the film is that it was written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, who's best known for the weird yelping voice he used as an actor in the Police Academy films. Williams is excellent. He opts for a much quieter, more human characterisation than the motormouthed sentimentalist he falls back on so often, and he's all the more moving for it. It's almost enough to make me forgive him for Old Dogs. Almost.

Nicholas Barber

 
 
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