It is virtually impossible not to use words such as “restrained” to describe Robin Williams’ mild-mannered performance in The World’s Greatest Dad, a superb, jet-black indie comedy from writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait.

The reason is obvious: for decades Williams has been the bouncy flibbertigibbet, the elastic-faced crazy-eyed man flogging his own distinct brand of manic cheerfulness. Over the past decade or so the amphetamine glaze has worn off, partly because Williams has mellowed with age but mostly because of very deliberate creative decisions. Buoyed by Good Will Hunting, for which he won an Oscar in 1998, Williams got deeper and darker in the years since, his glares particularly icy, mean and resonant in thrillers Insomnia (2002) and One Hour Photo (2002).

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His range widens still in The World’s Greatest Dad, but not in a way that can be conveniently described as simply “dark” or “dramatic”. Williams’ performance is an odd fusion of emotions, not unlike the film itself, and he fits like a glove with Goldthwait’s quirky directorial style. The World’s Greatest Dad is by turn sad, hilarious, quirky and grim, and a dark shining gem of a film.

Williams plays high school teacher, father and aspiring writer Lance Clayton, a pleasant but forgettable person, the kind of tea-and-scones fella who mixes in with the scenery no matter where he is, so long as it’s not a rave or a brothel. Lance is a capable but presumably unspectacular writer, a father subservient to his son, Kyle (Daryl Sabara), and a man easily and regularly short-changed in life.

Kyle is a rude and ungrateful brat, struggling through the meaty part of adolescence. Something dramatic happens to Kyle around the end of act one. Instead of facing the music, Lance creates a white lie. The film is about what happens when he sticks to it, how it spirals out of control and the mixed blessings he accrues because of it.

Goldthwait’s screenplay is genuinely unpredictable, and acted almost perfectly — sharp and funny, acerbic and witty performances, but collectively warm and humane underneath. This is one of the best, most refreshingly perverse black comedies in yonks.

The details: The World’s Greatest Dad screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival, but is now available nationally on DVD.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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