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“World’s Greatest Dad” and the death of Robin Williams

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World's Greatest Dad

World’s Greatest Dad, the last great Robin Williams movie

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.

“World’s Greatest Dad” is available to stream on Netflix. 

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6 Comments

  1. “Americans love to elevate the deceased, often to far beyond where they were when alive.” It is not only Americans, I think it is HUMAN NATURE ITS LOVE and a coping mechanism of the great loss, it is necessary to keep the mind’s equilibrium, it a grieving process. I am not American and my grandmother was not a famous person but the first few weeks that she passed away and sometimes now when I miss her I think of her as a GREAT person. If anyone comments about a negative anything about her I comment her great things she did when she CARED for me. Robin Williams will be missed by many, because laughter is one of the cures of sadness, it gives us a balance out there to survive. I am not saying that there are no others that makes us laugh but he really spoke from the heart his words were not fake and that is why were so effective. I hope he rests in peace and condolences for his family.

    Jessica
  2. What a one dimensional assessment you make here. Making this comparison reflects who you are Mr Silver. Not who Robin Williams is or was.
    The arc of a career is inconstant. If you looked past your own ignorance about Robin Williams as a performer and as a person, you would know that mr Williams was battling demons most of us never have to deal with. And that beyond his need to perform in lesser projects which he took on for financial purposes, was his generosity to people and causes, and his work for humanity throughout his life time. Including his work for the homeless, his support of Christopher Reeve and his foundation, and his support of those who had been damaged by the Holocaust. To call him a has been, as you’ve done here shows a narrow minded perception of humanity, in particular of this flawed but brilliant and generous human being. Look in the mirror. What do you see there besides envy Mr. Silver.

    Fran greenfield
  3. I was a fan. Robin Williams had a brilliant, quick mind and wit, and he was both a very good serious and comedic actor. Was he the best stand up comedian? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Was he a great actor? He gave some great performances. What troubles me is how some people find it necessary to spew such vitriole about the man. One right-wing pundit said the world is glorifying his suicide. I don’t see any of that. I see that many are paying tribute to the comic, the actor, the man. I don’t know if he committed suicide or if he died of auto-erotic asphyxiation , as I suspected after hearing an early report that he was found sitting in a chair with his belt attached to a door frame or knob. None of that matters nearly as much as the fact that he is gone. A light has gone out. His many talents entertained and uplifted me from his days as Mork through his part in “Dead Poet’s Society” – “Mrs. Doubtfire,” – and the long list of parts he played so well. Was he a troubled, flawed human? Yes. So, am I. So are most of us. As for me, I know my life was richer having him in it, and I let him go in love and light.

    Camille
  4. I just finished watching “World’s Greatest Dad” on Netflix and was also similarly stuck by the coincidental nature of events depicted.

    Speaking of the film I found it particularly striking the way it ended –a film really worth watching before reading the text below. Go watch it now on Netflix –seriously. So good.

    ***SPOILER ALERT***

    In the second to last scene of the film Lance/Williams delivers a speech to the school/kyle-profiteers/admirers/fans conferring how he/they really felt about his son and what kind of person his son was:

    “You guys didn’t like Kyle but that’s okay I didn’t either: I loved him –he was my son. But he was also a douchebag. He wasn’t very smart. And he didn’t kill himself. Kyle died accidentally while masturbating”.

    Events happen. Catharsis. Then the disembodied-Lance-narrator voice-over kicks-in and delivers this doozy:

    “I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone –it’s not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people that make you feel all alone”. Queue the Bowie/Mercury masterpiece “Under Pressure” (earlier plagiarized by a student in his poetry class) and the triumphant/relief-imbued finale.

    Whoa! : D There are so many different readings on what’s being said about suicide/tragedy, it’s realities, and how it plays through all different kinds of people and groups –the various states of alone and what that can mean.

    Stephen, I love how you pointed out other suicide-related-celebrity deaths and the dichotomy: public reactions vs. the various realities. The Carradine reference was especially thought-provoking considering this film –especially how the family corrected the initial statement.

    A surprising film that depicts life with a realness few films dare to delivering powerful scenes stacked around very elaborate jokes.

    As for the reaction around Robin Williams’ death it reminds me of how difficult it can be to have people co-opt the idea of a person and push it back at you as you remember all of what/who they were. A nostalgic-cathartic bridge across 15 years –the DOUBTFIRE: “using imaginary emotions to allow the processor delivery from thought”.

    Jason
  5. I feel really sad of robins death , i wish there was some way i could of talked to him before he died , i also have clinical depression and also adhd , and its a living hell, but i’m surprised so many people are taking this auto erotic theory to heart , i mean you have to admit its odd for someone to commit suicide sitting down with a belt as a noose around his neck, somebody told me his wife was a real bitch that could of played a role into deviant behavior but nothing is 100% true, i’m not one for conspiracys but the family guy episode , worlds greatest dad suicide , i’m starting to think that these theorys aren’t so far fetched, it also reminds me of michael hutchenes death

    graham
  6. Most people are living lives of quite desperation,putting a mask over their feelings,

    Joanne Matson