Bobcat Goldthwait and Robin Williams in "World's Greatest Dad"
Bobcat Goldthwait and Robin Williams in "World's Greatest Dad"

This review contains spoilers.

Movie release dates can be deceiving. Back in 2006, Samuel Goldwyn Films and Roadside Attractions announced that Bobcat Goldthwait’s new comedy, Sleeping Dogs Lie, would open that September. After a month’s delay the film showed up in New York and LA, but the Chicago engagement was rescheduled for November, pushed back again to January 2007, and ultimately canceled. Given the movie’s premise—all hell breaks loose when a young woman reveals to her fiance that she once fellated her dog—I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised.

When Goldthwait’s follow-up, World’s Greatest Dad—which turns on a character’s penchant for autoerotic asphyxiation—was scheduled to open here August 28 and then moved back to September 4, I began to wonder if writing this piece would turn out to be a fool’s errand. But I hope the movie does materialize this weekend, because Goldthwait is developing from a brilliant bad-taste comedian (he wrote, directed and starred in the cult favorite Shakes the Clown, about a grievously alcoholic birthday clown) into a comic filmmaker with real ideas. Perverse sexual adventures may figure prominently in Sleeping Dogs Lie and World’s Greatest Dad, but Goldthwait never goes for the easy laugh. What gives both movies their edge is his honest recognition of his characters’ needs, no matter how dark. Honesty in turn becomes a major thematic concern, though in each movie Goldthwait arrives at a radically different morality. In Sleeping Dogs Lie, the protagonist begins with an outsize regard for the truth and eventually learns the ethical value of deception. In the more conventional World’s Greatest Dad, the protagonist constructs a gigantic lie that gives him everything he wants in life except his self-respect.

“My name is Amy,” announces the main character of Sleeping Dogs Lie in an opening voice-over, “and yes, at college, I blew my dog.” Played with humor and gravity by Melinda Page Hamilton, Amy is a perceptive, down-to-earth woman who doesn’t consider herself a sexual deviate, just a person who did something stupid out of boredom or perhaps curiosity. “Immediately I was full of guilt, but at the same time, as disgusting as it was, another part of me kinda thought it was funny.” Now in her mid-20s, Amy has accepted an engagement ring from her boyfriend, John (Bryce Johnson), but when he challenges her to disclose her deepest, darkest secret, it turns out to be a little too deep and dark for him. Worse, this revelation occurs in the middle of a visit to meet her straitlaced parents, and after her meth-smoking brother, Dougie (Jack Plotnick), overhears the couple’s conversation, he blurts out Amy’s secret at the family dinner table.

By this time, however, Goldthwait has already given us a good look at this dysfunctional family, whose repression explains much better than the opening monologue why Amy might have been impelled to pleasure her dog. The whole household seems to rest on a foundation of secrets, lies, and self-delusion. When Dougie goes on a tirade about “niggers” and “spics,” his mother (Bonita Friedericy) explains to John, “He’s not really racist—he just lost his girlfriend.” Dougie’s drug problem is never mentioned, though he looks like a wraith and routinely smokes up in his bedroom. Taking John aside, the father (Geoff Pierson) instructs him not to curse or even think about making love to Amy under their roof, lest he offend the mother’s virtue. “I’m the only man she’s ever slept with,” he says of his wife—though in another scene the mother reveals to Amy that she was once recruited to visit Elvis Presley at Graceland, where she stripped down to her underwear and wrestled another girl while the King masturbated.

Amy pays a heavy price for her honesty: John breaks off their engagement and her parents shun her. By the end of the movie she’s found another guy, a coworker at the Catholic grade school where she teaches, and they’ve begun to build a life together. He understands that her last relationship was ruined by a deep, dark secret in her past, and it’s driving him crazy—he has to know. This time Amy fabricates a more mundane crime, telling him she once had an abortion. Like her parents, Amy has begun to see deception as a good thing: in the concluding voice-over she decides, “It’s trying to live up to the lies we tell about ourselves that makes us better people.” Few comedies can be trusted to come up with such an adult insight, though even that one is partially undercut by Amy’s extreme situation. Lying may be moral in some situations, but in hers it’s also a hell of a lot easier.

There are better ways to get ahead in show business than making a movie about bestiality. According to Goldthwait, his manager warned him that industry people would question his mental health and Hamilton’s manager doubted that the movie, then titled Stay, would even get a DVD release. Goldthwait shot the film in 16 days, using crew members recruited through Craigslist and locations that ranged from friends’ homes to a cheapo sound stage for pornos. He managed to produce a finished cut for $40,000, and to his surprise it was accepted into the dramatic competition at Sundance, where, according to the Hollywood Reporter, it left an audience “flabbergasted and fractured.” More festival screenings followed in Toronto, London, Austin, and San Sebastian, Spain, where the movie got a standing ovation. The semiaborted theatrical release grossed a measly $638,627 worldwide, but when you bring in a cable-ready movie for $40,000, it’s bound to turn some sort of profit.

That—and Robin Williams in the lead role—might explain how Goldthwait was able to get moving right away on World’s Greatest Dad. He and Williams are old pals from their days on the LA comedy circuit, and Williams contributed an uncredited but priceless cameo to Shakes the Clown, playing a prickly mime instructor. His typically overripe dramatic moments in World’s Greatest Dad make you appreciate Melinda Page Hamilton even more, but the real star here is Goldthwait’s story, which is just as ethically complex as Sleeping Dogs Lie. Williams plays Lance Clayton, a divorced high school English teacher who’s always dreamed of being a famous writer, of “creating an important work, something that connected with people and helped them as they suffered through the human condition.” But he’s never sold a manuscript, and the main thing he’s created is his teenage son, Kyle, who attends the high school where his father teaches and generates more suffering than he’s ever likely to alleviate.

Played by Daryl Sabara, Kyle is crude, lascivious, hateful, controlling, verbally abusive, emotionally manipulative—a real monster. Early in the movie, Lance finds him hanging from a bathrobe sash that’s been knotted to his bedpost; after Lance frantically rescues the boy, Kyle protests, “I was coming, you fag!” For Kyle, anyone who shows the slightest trace of compassion or sensitivity is a “fag,” particularly his father, and women are especially worthy of contempt. “You have to know that fucking pussy is virgin shit,” he tells his only friend at school. “When I’m with a chick I go straight for the brown eye.” In fact, he’s never gotten any closer to a woman than his father has to a publisher. Roundly despised by his teachers and classmates, Kyle is the kind of person the world could easily do without, and when his father finds him strangling again—this time as dead as a doornail—his grief is magnified by the knowledge that almost no one will share it.

Autoerotic asphyxiation may seem perverse to some, but it’s nothing compared to the plot twist Goldthwait serves up in the wake of Kyle’s death. Shamed by the circumstances of his son’s death, Lance rehangs the body in a closet and types out a fake suicide note at Kyle’s computer. After students find the police report online and reprint the suicide note in the school paper, Kyle suddenly becomes an icon to his classmates, and the same kids who hated his guts when he was alive fall all over themselves to prove they were close to him. Lance is so gratified by this outpouring of affection that he fabricates a journal Kyle supposedly kept, which becomes a sacred text to the student body and attracts a literary agent who tells Lance, “This could be the biggest posthumous autobiography since The Diary of Anne Frank.”

Like Amy’s deception at the end of Sleeping Dogs Lie, Lance’s charade turns out to be an ethical puzzle with no clear solution. By channeling his own thoughts through his dead son, Lance is able to turn Kyle into something he could never be in life: a source of hope, solace, and meaning for other people. But in creating the fictional Kyle, he negates the real one. When the students ask about Kyle’s interests, Lance substitutes his own, telling them that Kyle loved Emily Dickinson and singer-songwriter Bruce Hornsby (“a fag,” according to the real Kyle), and as the ruse begins to snowball, Lance’s motives become increasingly more selfish.

In the DVD commentary for Sleeping Dogs Lie, Goldthwait sums up the movie by explaining that kindness is more important to him than honesty. That’s a valid philosophy, but it’s complicated by the fact that people are usually kindest to themselves.