Public Grieving, Robin Williams and The World's Greatest Dad

Robin Williams World's Greatest Dad

   It was such a shame he had to go they all agreed. A sensitive soul, a kind man, they agreed.

   They didn't know him as well as they would have liked but his death was still a tragedy to them. Suicide, hanging, brought a cruel and lonely full stop to the end of a profound life they uttered to one another. In death, they could finally see his true being with lucid transparency. Now they could grieve together as one, loudly and publicly - his passing an excuse to delve into a game of one-upsmanship; who could conjure the most pathos-filled anecdote of his life?

   Yet, their behaviour was strange. As they stacked tale upon tale of his kind heart one on top of the next, creating a totem of sycophantic sentimentality, did no-one take the time to stand back and question what they were doing? Dare anyone stand up and speak the true feelings in their heart? Would peer pressure stop one from communicating that, in essence, perhaps he was, in all honesty, a bit of a dick?

   Here, I speak not of Robin Williams who committed suicide earlier this week. I speak not of the actor and comedian, the star of Flubber no less, who provoked an outpouring of public grief when news reached us that he had taken his own life. From all reports I have read, Williams was a decent and gracious man.  Instead, I reference one of the finest, and certainly most overlooked, films of his acting career - World's Greatest Dad.


  Williams stars as failed writer, single father and high school teacher Lance Clayton. He is insignificant to those around him in almost every conceivable way. His life would be morose and dull were it not for the existence of a son, Kyle (Daryl Sabara), an entity who makes Lance's waking hours a hell even Dante could not have possibly imagined.

   A sex-obsessed, vile, anger-consumed teenager, Kyle's sole purpose seems to be to spread hatred everywhere he goes - he repulses all who encounter him, perhaps even his own father who is uncertain as to how he has spawned such a demon. Its almost a relief to us, the audience, when the brash youth shuffles off this mortal coil - his death is an accidental one, an experiment in autoerotic asphyxiation gone wrong. Lance discovers the body and, after unleashing a torrent of grief, concocts a plan to gain his son a dignity in death which was lacking throughout his life. Lance, channeling his frustrated writing ambitions, pens a fake suicide of wounded prose to explain the tragedy.

   Something unexpected occurs. The passionate, lyrical poetry which supposedly comprised Kyle's last thoughts, touches a nerve with the teenager's peers and teachers - he was, they decide, misunderstood a beautiful soul perhaps. Scores of students swell with pride as they reminisce of shared bonds with the tragic deceased - Kyle, a despicable young creature whom no one would dignify with anything approaching a kind word whilst alive, was suddenly elevated to the position of a secular saint.

   In death, Kyle had become an icon of young adult suffering - everyone could suddenly relate and empathise with him; no outlandish, and entirely false, public proclamation of grieving was considered hyperbolic. Everyone who knew Kyle tried to make his death all about themselves - who knew him the best, loved him the most and, inevitably, the loudest.

   Lance, thrilled that his ghost-written note has been so well received, finds that he enjoys the attention of people poring over something he has created for once - maybe Kyle kept a journal or diary he could share? He too noticed an opportunity to exploit, a death by which to make himself noticed.



   Bobcat Goldthwaite's fourth feature in the director's chair is a film which will only grow in prescience as the years go by. Each time a public figure dies, we find new ways to publicly pronounce how much the passing of one life has affected ours.

   We paved the streets when Diana died so our anguished cries could be caught on camera; before the internet was widely available this was our way of letting the world know how much we cared. When the information super highway became available, we lit the World Wide Web ablaze with our creative sparks of mourning as a man we never met, from a profession as noble as marketing us products we simply don't need, passed away. Jade Goody, a young woman who repulsed us with her vitriol and unrelenting unpleasantness, became a paragon of virtue when cancer took her life.

   Nothing, not sport, not the memories of war and sacrifice, certainly not cinema, brings us together more than public displays of grief. The World's Greatest Dad takes us behind the scenes of the grief industry and reveals to us the most vulgar world imaginable - a place of hypocrites, liars and sycophants. In doing so, Goldthwaite and Williams have crafted a near perfect black comedy and social satire - an ugly moon which reflects on each of us. It is a rather beautiful legacy.
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