When Robin Williams passed away Monday night in an apparent suicide, fans and critics took to Twitter and various other social networks and web outlets to remember the late comic. I read fond remembrances of the many movies and shows Williams starred in, from his standup to Mork and Mindy to “The World According to Garp” to “Popeye” to “Dead Poets Society” to “Good Morning Vietnam” to “Aladdin” to “Good Will Hunting” to that great Louie episode in which Williams and Louis C.K. promise to go to each other’s funerals.
But since last night I’ve been thinking a lot about another Williams performance, his lead role in the 2009 film “World’s Greatest Dad.” Not only is the film one of the great dark comedies of recent years, but in more than one respect, it’s chilling in the way Williams’ eventual death echoed it.
A brief plot synopsis (spoilers included): Williams plays a single dad, high school English teacher, and failed novelist. His teenaged son, Kyle, is a nightmarish jerk, constantly making lascivious comments to everyone around him and deservedly unpopular in his high school, the same one where Williams works. About halfway through the movie, Kyle dies accidentally of autoerotic asphyxiation. His father finds him, and wanting to spare his son the embarrassment, stages the body to make it look as though he committed suicide, while also writing a fake suicide note. The note becomes an unlikely literary sensation- as does a bogus diary, also ghostwritten by Williams- and Kyle becomes a posthumous icon, suddenly worshiped in death by the classmates who shunned him when he was still alive. Williams, meanwhile, gains the literary stardom and riches he’d long sought- but must ask, are all the lies worth it?
The film, written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait of all people, was not only darkly hilarious, but it had a very true point to make: Americans love to elevate the deceased, often to far beyond where they were when alive.
The film’s thesis was much-vindicated that same summer by the death of Michael Jackson. For the last 15 or so years of his life, Jackson was looked at by most as a physically grotesque weirdo who hadn’t made any good music in years and, by the way, may very well have molested children. After he died, it was as though he never stopped being the King of Pop, and nothing in his life after 1990 actually happened.
The same happened with numerous other famous people, like Raiders owner Al Davis, almost universally regarded for the last quarter century of his life as doddering, incompetent and behind-the-times, and then transformed in death back into the NFL pioneer and civil rights hero he was in the ’60s and ’70s. Meanwhile, the death of actor David Carradine, also in the summer of 2009, played out the exact opposite as the plot of “World’s Greatest Dad”- he was originally reported to have committed suicide, until his family corrected the record- nope, it was actually autoerotic asphyxiation.
And now the themes of the movie are echoed again, sadly, by the death of Williams himself. And not only because he reportedly died of suicide by asphyxia.
Throughout his career, Williams did a lot of great work that was well-regarded by many people. No, he was never the punchline that Michael Jackson or Al Davis was. But in the last 10-15 years- as my colleague Joe Paone pointed out earlier today- Williams appeared in a lot of things that weren’t so highly regarded. There were not-so-great movies, and a not-so-great TV show (last year’s The Crazy Ones.) His rapid-fire-funny-voices schtick undoubtedly got less funny over time, as well as his propensity to recycle jokes verbatim from 25-year-old standup specials. There was the occasional late-career great turn- like the Louie episode, and “World’s Greatest Dad” itself- but Williams’ later years, there was a lot more of “RV,” “License to Wed” and “Man of the Year.”
This is not to knock Robin Williams. He probably had 20 distinct roles in his career that I love and will always cherish. The man clearly battled a lot of demons in his life, addiction and depression among them, his death is a tragedy and my heart breaks for his family.
The truth was, in the last years of his life Williams was not held in nearly the same regard as he had been earlier, by critics or audiences, and that’s something that’s been somewhat papered over in the response to his death. And that happened to reflect the point raised, ironically enough, by one of his own movies.