They made three Problem Child movies between 1990 and 1995, including one for TV that followed a short-lived series. You remember these pieces of crap. They featured an obnoxious redhead named Junior who terrorized John Ritter in an endless series of unfunny, mean-spirited slapstick scenarios. Like Dennis the Menace without the charm or the Ritalin. I bring these stinkers up because I have a theory that World's Greatest Dad is really an unproduced screenplay for Problem Child 4, the one where Junior grows into adolescence, becomes a teenage dirtbag, and dies from autoerotic asphyxiation at the end of Act 1. This is when his hapless father discovers that he is nothing without his little devil spawn and has to figure out new ways to make life interesting for himself. Let the hilarity ensue!
If this scenario is true, then writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait isn't telling. Yes, that Bobcat Goldthwait, the oddly voiced absurdist comedian who transitioned into directing with 1991's cult hit Shakes the Clown. His dark humor and love for all things inappropriate is all over World's Greatest Dad, but so is a depressive streak that moves this movie out of black comedy and into something altogether repulsive, contrived, and...well, it's really pretty dull, actually.
Robin Williams, in one of his performances where he speaks quietly and frowns a lot, thus replacing his manic energy with po-faced sincerity, stars as Lance Clayton, a failed novelist and failing teacher who has raised a real jerk of a son. Former-Spy Kid Daryl Sabara graduates from the kiddy fare into playing Kyle, a foul-mouthed perverted brat who likes scat porn and watching old ladies change their clothes. Everything he doesn't like is for people whom he labels "fags," and since he doesn't like anything, apparently there are a lot of them in the world. He brings nothing but grief on his loving father, who is such a pantywaist, he mainly takes it. Mom is out of the picture, presumably because audiences would find it implausible that Lance would ever find a woman who'd stoop to put up with him--oh, but wait, no. Lance is secretly dating another teacher, Claire (Alexie Gilmore), who is too young for him and thus an added source of insecurity. Kyle says Claire's a TILF (she's a teacher, you figure out the rest), and it's under-the-table panty shots of her that provide the fuel for Kyle's final rub and tug. Surreptitious photography? I guess sometimes you can't take the spy out of the kid.
Naturally, Clayton doesn't want the world knowing how his son really died, and so he cleans up the scene and writes a fake suicide note for the boy. When that note becomes public, it inadvertently turns Kyle into a high-school folk hero. Clayton is suddenly everyone's favorite teacher, and everyone who reads Kyle's last words finds something different that speaks to them. Clayton rolls with it, and even uses it to his advantage. He had suspicions that Claire was cheating on him with Mike (Henry Simmons), the cool teacher who is a published writer and kicks ass on the basketball court to boot, and now that Clayton has everyone's sympathy, he can shove all that stuff back in Mike's face. It's a totally bungled narrative element, staged like the sitcom plot that it is. There are so many clumsy edits, pointless close-ups, and convenient coincidences that maybe Goldthwait's doing it on purpose, maybe he wants to subvert sitcom conventions. He did spend nearly five years lending his voice to a bunny puppet on Unhappily After, so he does know his way around the form. Even so, even if I were to give him credit for that, it's already been done. Between Parker and Stone's That's My Bush! and The Sarah Silverman Program, I think the lid has been put on the self-aware situation comedy. Plus, Sarah Silverman actually knows how to make a point when she says something foul about vaginas.
Look, I'm not some namby-pamby crybaby who can't take a harsh joke. I love acerbic humor, I just think it's harder to do than most people give it credit for. It requires a genuine edge that World's Greatest Dad doesn't have. Goldthwait goes for easy targets and even easier shocks. There's no wit in the dialogue, no meaningful satire in this scenario, just a lot of obvious jokes that are meant to appall us but without prodding us to think about why we're appalled. Teenage suicide spun into cult celebrity has already been done and done better in Heathers, and a well-meaning teacher who goes into dark territory was much funnier in Election. World's Greatest Dad isn't even as daringly unlikable as Observe and Report. Those movies had real characters and actual writing; World's Greatest Dad just has borrowed plot devices, a seemingly endless string of musical montages, and slang Bobcat Goldthwait found on the internet. It's the Todd Solondz school of moviemaking, where the demented nerds try to freak out the squares and end up just as miserable as they began.
There is a glimmer of hope in the third act, a brief phantom of a movie that might have been, when Clayton seizes the opportunity to finally launch his own writing career and enters James Frey territory by faking Kyle's journal, but it's too late in the game and also too easily discarded. World's Greatest Dad ends with Clayton undergoing a transformative redemption that wasn't earned. It's as emotionally shallow as the faux-celebrity Goldthwait seeks to lampoon and makes me doubt whether the one effective and honest emotional moment in the film, the long and painful breakdown Clayton has after finding his son dead, was really effective or emotional at all. Maybe it was just Goldthwait getting lucky, his obviousness for once working in his favor. When it came down to it, I'm sure those guys who made the Problem Child movies got one or two things right, too.