After two features (1991 cult fave “Shakes the Clown” and 2006’s “Sleeping Dogs Lie”) that eked fair mileage from one-joke bad-taste concepts, comic turned writer-director Bobcat Goldthwait comes up with a more expansive outre comedy exercise in “World’s Greatest Dad.” Starring Robin Williams as the title figure — who’s somehow raised the World’s Worst Teenager — the pic wobbles a bit before emerging a successful low-key satire of literary fraud and morbid personality cults. While this won’t approach Williams’ major-studio average, B.O. prospects look upper-end niche.
Mom has long since left the building, leaving divorced, mild-mannered Seattle high school teacher Lance Clayton (Williams) in sole charge of their only child Kyle (Daryl Sabara). Unfortunately, Kyle has, at age 15, turned into a terrific argument for birth control; he’s rude, hostile, filthy-mouthed, none-too-bright, loathed by classmates, seemingly interested in nothing but violent videogames, onanism and Internet porn even his lone friend Andrew (Evan Martin) finds disgusting.
Things aren’t going so well for Lance even outside his domestic misery. His pet poetry class is near-dead from student disinterest. He’s written extensively in every literary form (including five novels), all rejected by publishers. And while he’s carrying on a clandestine relationship with comely art instructor Claire (Alexie Gilmore), she shows signs of transferring her affections to his fellow English teacher Mike (Henry Simmons), who is young, handsome, popular and published — after his very first “New Yorker” submission, yet.
Around the 40-minute point tragedy strikes, resulting in the one overdrawn moment in what’s otherwise perhaps Williams’ best (at least largely) dramatic performance to date. His character’s immediate response also strains credulity.
But once this lengthy setup has passed, Goldthwait’s script turns into a surprisingly restrained, focused sendup of the blind adulation often bestowed on flawed personalities once they croak too soon. What starts as a student fad — now they have their very own Holden Caulfield/Kurt Cobain to obsess over — then generates national fame and the publishing interest that had previously eluded Lance. But it’s success of an unbearably ironic kind.
Those who like their Robin Williams manic will have to settle for the highlight of his judiciously etched performance — one desperate attempt to restrain guilt-induced giddiness on an Oprah-type chatshow. Support characters are rather one-dimensional but all nicely turned.
The knack for handling outrageous ideas with deadpan directorial restraint that Goldthwait suggested in prior features and TV work has evolved further here, as has his screenwriting sophistication. The erstwhile Bobcat of “Police Academy,” “Hot-to-Trot” and incredibly annoying character voice might well be ready for a major-league comeback, albeit behind the camera. (He does cameo here, as does — for reasons too complicated to explain — ’80s Top 40 fave Bruce Hornsby.)
While not particularly stylish, the production package is pro in all aspects.