Doodad Kind of Town

The LIttle Details that Make a Movie
September 10, 2009, 12:19 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

This blog has been a pretty quiet place for most of the summer. I’ve let long hours at work and other stresses keep me from doing much writing. I’ve seen movies, I just haven’t felt particularly motivated to write about most of them.

Over the recent holiday weekend, I saw no less than three movies, all of which I liked: “Cold Souls,” “Away We Go,” and “World’s Greatest Dad.” Two days later the only one I’m still Check Spellingthinking about is “World’s Greatest Dad.” And I’m pretty fixated on one scene in particular.

In “World’s Greatest Dad,” the usually insufferable Robin Williams turns in a painfully brilliant performance as the father of a deviant, dimwitted and thoroughly reprehensible teenage son. His character, Lance Clayton, is a guy who can’t catch a break: a unpopular high school English teacher and would-be writer with a stack of rejected manuscripts on his desk, a sort-of girlfriend who manages to make him feel cared for without ever quite managing to go on a date with him, and a son who routinely calls him a ‘fag’ and a ‘dumb ass.’ There isn’t a bright spot in Lance’s life (except for maybe the secret stash of pot in his kitchen cabinet), and Williams shows us the character’s loneliness and pain without ever once being cloying, cuddly or obvious.

And nowhere more devastatingly than in a scene set in the teacher’s lunch room, early in the film. Allow me to set the scene.

In the course of one morning, Lance has discovered his son engaging in auto erotic asphyxiation, learned that his poetry class in being dropped from the school curriculum and been asked by the principal to consider enrolling his son in special education. And then at lunch period comes the worst blow of all: the school’s much more popular creative writing instructor has had an article published. In the New Yorker. On his very first try.

Poor, unpublished Lance learns this from his sometime girlfriend, as she bounces and squeals and gets all touchy-feely with the successful author, a handsome, athletic type named Mike. She’s soon joined by other teachers who insist that he read the article at the next student assembly. Lance makes a great show of congratulatory support for his colleague but the pain behind Williams’ eyes is almost unbearable to watch. He reacts to each revelation (“The New Yorker!” “His first try!”) as if he’s being stabbed and pretending to really enjoy it.

And through it all, he keeps fiddling with his “Fresh and Fit” lunch kit, folding and refolding his paper napkin, endlessly arranging and re-arranging little plastic containers of unidentifiable food on the lunch table. There’s something about that lunch kit and the way Williams can’t stop fussing with it, the way he fixates on the lunch kit whenever there’s an new outpouring of praise for Mike, that makes the scene even sadder to me. It’s a deceptively simple little bit of business that deepens the pathos of the scene.

Writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait (yes, the helium-voiced, lunatic comedian) adds a lot of telling little details like these throughout “World’s Greatest Dad.” I especially like the stack of Lance’s rejected novels with titles like “Darwin’s Pool” and”The Narcissist’s Life Vest.” Wouldn’t you love to know what those books were about? I know I would.

3 Comments so far
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I cannot believe this is by Bobcat Goldthwaite, just as I'm having a hard time believing Robin Williams can be anything but insufferable anymore.But, I trust you.

Comment by Rick Olson

Yeah, Rick, who woulda thunk that Bobcat Goldthwait would turn out to be a pretty decent filmmaker?Actually, there's a lot more to this film (Bill wrote about it over at his blog in more detial) and the second half is not as good as the first. And believe me, when I first saw there was a film called "World's Greatest Dad" starring Robin Williams, I wanted to run screaming as fas as I could in the opposite direction. But Williams really is good in it. I think he can be a really fine actor when he reins himself in; I also thought he was very good in "One Hour Photo."

Comment by Pat

We really enjoyed this. Williams turned in a superb performance. I'm glad I went in knowing nothing about the film other than he was a loser English teacher with a bad apple for a kid. Who knew Bobcat had it in him?

Comment by Reel Whore

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