When “Shakes The Clown” came out in 1991 I was quite taken with it. It’s a genuinely dirty little movie, gross and absurd, set in a surreal world that doesn’t really make a lot of sense, but there was a real filmmaker’s sensibility at work in the film. I remember telling people about it at the time, and more often than not, as soon as I mentioned the writer/director/star of the film, people would just tune out. “Oh, you mean that guy from the ‘Police Academy’ films who screams a lot? No. No, thanks.” And while I may not have that same kneejerk reaction to the name Bobcat Goldthwait (I liked his stand-up a lot), I can’t blame them. Goldthwait created a distinct comedy persona onstage, and for some people, that’s still how they define him, no matter how much time has passed. The truth is, though, he’s made several features now, with a filmmaker’s voice that has nothing to do with that howling spaz identity, and with “World’s Greatest Dad,” he’s made a major leap forward, delivering one of my favorite films at Sundance.
Dark comedy… truly dark comedy, where laughs are wrung from the skeeviest side of human behavior… is incredibly hard to get right. Part of the problem is that one key component of successful comedy is empathy. And I don’t mean it in the way that studio executives are always saying that characters have to be likable. It’s just that if we feel nothing at all for the people onscreen, good or bad, its hard to invest in anything that happens. Laughter is about recognition or shock or discomfort, and it’s always an emotional response, involuntary. Goldthwait’s greatest accomplishment here is the way he populates the entire film with characters who are amoral opportunists at best, and in some cases, they’re not even that. And while I can admire that on paper, that doesn’t automatically translate into laughs. That requires a deft touch, and for the first time, Goldthwait’s put it all together in a way that feels effortless.
Part of that is the casting of Robin Williams in the lead. I’ve always thought of him as one of those performers who can soar or sour based on the material. I’m not much for sappy Williams movies, or the broad and goofy kid’s fare. I prefer when we see the anger behind that clown’s mask of his, when those rubber cheeks flush with fury, or when he plays characters who threaten to collapse in on themselves. Lance Clayton’s a bit of both, and the character fits Williams like a glove. He’s a high school teacher who spends most of his time writing novels like “Door-To-Door Android” that have, so far, made it no further than a desk drawer or a garbage can. He’s a single dad, raising his teenage son Kyle, played by Daryl Sabara, best known as Juni from the “Spy Kids” movies. I guarantee that no one who sees this film is ever going to think of “Spy Kids” again first.
See, Kyle is an asshole. A raging piece of shit. And he’s not just a kid going through a little bit of teen angst. This isn’t a phase… it’s a personality disorder. And Goldthwait shoots him so he always looks shiny, slick, like a zit about to pop. Kyle takes enormous pleasure in torturing his father. Their conversations are miserable, traps where Lance can do nothing other than stare at this alien sitting next to him, horrified and disappointed. Since Kyle attends the school where Lance teaches, they have plenty of opportunities to collide each and every day, and Lance does what he can to soothe the humiliation of knowing that he’s failed completely with this kid. He’s in a secret relationship with Claire (Alexie Gilmore), the school’s art teacher, and she seems to be the one good thing in Lance’s life. Even so, she doesn’t want him to tell anyone about them being together, supposedly for professional reasons. Besides, she sort of seems to be keeping her options open, flirting with Mike (Henry Simmons), one of the other teachers. Lance does his best to stay emotionally afloat as his boss, Principal Simmons (Geoff Pierson) threatens to cut his class load and ship Kyle off to a special education program.
And he may need it. The first time we see him, he’s jerking off with a belt around his neck, and he seems to be into porn to a disturbing degree. He’s one of these post-Stile Project kids who think that the more extreme and degrading something is, the better. Kyle talks about sex is such brutal, grotesque terms that it’s almost an abstract. His one friend, Andrew (Evan Martin), is a slight little guy who knows that Kyle is all talk, and he seems to be the only person who can tolerate the barrage of filth. Kyle’s close to expulsion, prone to violence… basically every parent’s nightmare. Still, Lance does whatever he can do to try and get through to him, to reach some detente with his son. And there are hints in a few scenes that he’s getting close, that he might be on the verge of really connecting with Kyle…
… and then a stupid accident changes everything. There’s an incident that happens about 1/3 of the way into the film that flattened me. I thought for sure that the laughs were over, and that the rest of the movie would have to be dramatic to accomodate such a disturbing choice. Yet somehow, Goldthwait almost immediately gets back to the laughs, and if anything, the film gets sharper and funnier after the big event. Lance makes a series of monstrous decisions, unfathomable ethical decisions, and suddenly, he finds himself getting all those things he’s always wanted. The more he abandons his basic human decency, the better his life becomes. The film raises some real questions in this age where Oprah and publishers are embarassed by false memoirists and where celebrity is more important than dignity, but Goldthwait never once tips his film into being “about” anything. This is a comedy. A dark, dark, dark, dark comedy. More than anything else, Goldthwait wants to push you to laugh at things that no one should laugh at, and I’m shocked at how well it works.
The film’s got a bright pop candy look thanks to cinematographer Horacio Marquinez, and the world is well-designed. The entire supporting cast is perfectly in-tune with what Goldthwait’s doing, and they all strike the exact right tone. One weak link could have derailed the film, but instead, this horrifying display somehow turns into an oddly moving display, with an ending that tied me in absolute moral knots. I’ve never been so proud of someone for such a despicable act, and I’m curious to see what audiences make of “World’s Greatest Dad.” I hope some bold distributor sacks up and releases this one, because it is an uncommon achievement, and one of the highlights for me of the last eight days.