Based on the three movies under his belt as a writer and director, it's safe to say that Bobcat Goldthwait feels most comfortable when he's making his audience uncomfortable. Like many other indie filmmakers, Goldthwait is interested in mining the human condition but he can't seem to stop himself from pegging those explorations to premises that will repulse his target grown-up audience.
"World's Greatest Dad," Goldthwait's latest, turns on an act that you won't find in the pages of "The Joy of Sex." Just as he used bestiality as a plot device to delve into matters of trust in his 2006 comedy-drama "Sleeping Dogs Lie," Goldthwait here isn't particularly interested in the actual transgression -- or its shock value. What he really latches onto with "Dad" is our selective memories when it comes to collective grief, a pretty timely topic for our post-Jacko world.
The film's "world's greatest dad" is failed novelist Lance (Robin Williams at his tamped-down best), a high school English teacher who, like every other adult in the movie, is a big phony. However, fakery might be better than the real thing, at least when it comes to Lance's ball-of-bile, adolescent son Kyle ("Spy Kids' " Daryl Sabara), a teenager possessing a complete contempt for everything as well as a narrow, unimaginative range of interests (basically: porn and masturbation).
"There's no sugarcoating how difficult my son is," Lance wanly tells the school principal. He's not kidding. Outside of those mean girls tormenting Sissy Spacek in "Carrie," Kyle might be the most repellent teenager in movie history, and Goldthwait is unsparing in the way he depicts this creepy kid and the poison he spews at his well-meaning, doormat of a dad. (Kyle's mother, understandably, long ago got out of Dodge.)
The movie takes an unexpected turn midway through, and it's here that Goldthwait zeroes in on the real subject at hand -- the human need for reinvention and revisionism. Faced with an unspeakable situation (and it really is unspeakable; to say more would spoil the movie), Lance does what he feels he must to make himself feel better. Only it doesn't, at least after a while.
For all of its cutting cynicism, "Dad" proves unexpectedly moving in its portrait of a middle-aged man leaving childish things behind.
'World's Greatest Dad'
MPAA rating: R for language, crude and sexual content, some drug use and disturbing images
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
Playing: In selected theaters