Saturday, September 5, 2009


[Spoilers for World's Greatest Dad follow]

Bobcat Goldthwait's new black comedy, World's Greatest Dad, is about a good-hearted hard-working man named Lance (Robin Williams) who is the father to a despicable teenage boy named Kyle (Daryl Sabara). Mean-spirited, angry and sexually deviant, Kyle dies one night, accidentally, in a mishap involving autoerotic asphyxiation. His father finds his body, and, in order to avoid the shame that will attach to his son's name, as well as he own, Lance restructures the scene of his son's death to make it look like a suicide, complete with a suicide note which Lance writes himself and tucks into his son's pocket.

Here's how Roger Ebert describes the scene in his review:

Lance comes home to find his son has strangled himself. He has loved the boy despite everything, and now he attempts to rewrite the story of his death. He manufactures misleading evidence for the police to find...

To me, this very clearly implies, to anyone reading the review without having seen the film, that Kyle's death was a suicide. Nothing is said by Ebert about the death being accidental. In the film, Lance comes home and goes to Kyle's room, where he sees his son, dead, in front of his computer, with a belt around his neck, the belt pulled taught and attached behind him. Earlier, the cause of death is set up very clearly by Goldthwait in a scene where Lance walks in on his son performing the same act, with more success, and Lance warns him that what he's doing is dangerous. But while Ebert does mention Kyle's chronic masturbation, he says nothing about the asphyxiation part, and the possibility that Ebert does believe that Kyle's death was a suicide is hard to ignore. Except, how to explain how Ebert interpreted the scene (beautifully acted by Williams, by the way) that follows Lance's discovery of his son's body, which shows Lance, among other things, hanging his son's corpse by the neck in his closet?
All of this occurs maybe a little less than halfway through the film. As the story continues, Lance, a failed writer who teaches poetry at his son's high school, forges a journal that he claims was written by his son. Before this happens, he's told by the school principal that someone on the school paper hacked into the police department's report on Kyle's death, and discovered the suicide note that Lance wrote. No one else knows this, and the note is taken to be Kyle's own words. The school body becomes moved, as one, by Kyle's pain. In writing the phony journal, Lance intends not only to work out his own complex feelings about a son who was plainly unlikable, but to capitalize on the sympathy of everyone in the school.

He gives a hard copy manuscript of the journal to the school's grief counselor, who reads it, loves it, and, with Lance's approval, prints up hundreds of professionally bound copies to hand out to everyone in the high school. And again, here's how Ebert describes this development:

This diary he posts on the Internet, it goes viral at the high school, and the student body is overtaken with remorse about the way Kyle was treated. Soon he becomes the deity of a death cult, led no doubt by Twilight fans, and students start wearing his photo. Lance is now seen as a heroic father.

Disregarding the bizarre reference to Twilight, where in the world is Ebert getting the idea that the diary was posted on the internet? It would be easier to believe that he confused the diary with the suicide note, which was found on-line (but Lance did not post it virally, it was found by hackers, and in fact Lance had no intention of expanding on the lie he began by making Kyle's death look like a suicide until the note was discovered by the public) if the plot of the whole second half of the film didn't depend on the fact that the diary was actually, physically, in book form, published.

The two major plot elements of World's Greatest Dad are the way that Kyle actually died, as distinct from the way Lance claims he died, and the phony journal which is published as a book -- the kind of book you find not on-line, but the kind with pages that you have to turn. And in his review, Ebert gets the details of both plot elements precisely wrong. How is it possible to believe what Ebert seems to believe happened in the film, and still understand anything else in the film? Did he watch the whole movie? Was he preoccupied while watching it? I've seen film critics get details wrong before, little details and big details, but in this case Ebert essentially gets the whole film wrong, at least the plot of it. What's going on here?
And about that strange jab at Twilight he made. I haven't seen that film, nor do I intend to, but Ebert says that the death cult is led "no doubt by Twilight fans". "No doubt"? Shouldn't he know? In any case, the death cult is led by everybody at once, and, this film being part satire, each stereotyped high school clique is represented. There is a Goth girl -- the Twilight fan, presumably -- but there is also a jock, a bully, various kinds of geeks and nerds, and so on. And a principal and several teachers. No one leads this cult, which Ebert would know if, well...I don't know what.


Greg said...

I have no idea what the Twilight reference means. Are Twilight fans notable for leading death cults? Did I miss that somewhere? And the plot elements wrought so completely wrong does make one wonder. Is Ebert maybe watching DVD screeners and nodding off or worse (just speculation) not watching at all but getting the basics from a press release and writing it up?

I've dissected a couple of reviews/posts by Ebert lately and I think it's time he retired. He's had a great career, multiple books, a Pulitzer Prize and now... well, he seems clearly past his prime. He could start up a blog (not the Sun Times sponsored one but his own personal one) and keep writing about movies he loves, that he has fully watched and paid attention to but the weekly reviewing of new releases - that should end. He's just not on his game anymore. And I'm no longer convinced he's getting through every movie he's reviewing.

bill r. said...

Yeah, I sort of agree. As you say, a blog would give him time to really dig deep into the films he sees, which he currently can't really do. But he's such an icon now that no one really seems to want to call him on anything. Which is not to say that I'm some kind of brave knight, but rather I don't think he's going to retire any time soon.

The Twilight thing is really bizarre. The first time I read the review, I kind of raised my eyebrows and moved on, but the more I think about it, the more nonsensical it is.

Greg said...

Well yes because of how he phrases it with the "no doubt" as if we should all slap our foreheads and say, "Of course idiot! Who else would lead a death cult? Duh!" It's just strange. Like if there was a plot in a movie where a bunch of people decide to plan a party in honor of a popular character and I wrote, "led no doubt by the Star Wars fans." And then people would read that and think, "what in the hell does that mean? Is Greg off his meds again?"

bill r. said...

And before anyone says anything, I realize that Ebert meant his Twilight line as a joke, but it's also obvious that he meant it to be either based in some sort of reality, or in what's depicted in World's Greatest Dad, but since it's based in neither, the line just comes off as random and loony.

Anonymous said...

This isn't an isolated case. Ebert regularly gets details of movies wrong - big details and little details - in his reviews. I used to make a sort of parlor game out of 'spot-the-mistake', until I realized it was too easy and kind of sad.

Patricia Perry said...

Bill -

I just finished watching "World's Greatest Dad" and I hope you'll review it yourself, because I'm interested to hear what you thought.

As for Ebert's review, which I just read in its entirety - it is totally fucked up. I can't believe he watched the same movie. The examples you cite are the most egregious - that Twilight fan reference is out-and-out bizarre - but Ebert's comparison of Kyle's death to Michael Jackson's is also out there. I also don't entirely get his statement that the phony death story brought out everyone's better natures - I'd say it brought out everyone's hypocrisy, especially Williams' on/off girlfriend.

But overall, I was pretty impressed with the movie itself. I wouldn't guessed that Bobcat Goldthwait had a movie like that in him. And Williams is great.

Fox said...

Bizarre... and good noticing of Ebert's missteps here Bill, especially the miffed accidental death scene.

But the Twilight thing confuses me even more. Twilight may appeal to goth-styled kids, but it seems to be a pretty anti-death cult series if you ask me. One of the refreshing things about it is that it isn't obsessed with death and terror. It's a love story. Oh well.

BTW... I'm still unsure how I feel about World's Greatest Dad in total, but I thought the scene where Lance finds his son was crushing, maybe because I wasn't expecting it. I thought Robin Williams played it almost perfectly and Goldthwait handled it in a thoughtful way as well. It's a tough scene. I love the song that went with it.

bill r. said...

rwcg - I realize it's not an isolated case. I've picked up on this stuff with Ebert for years, but never before have I seen him so completely bungle it. Never before, in fact, have I wondered if he actually saw the movie he was reviewing.

Pat - I honestly took Ebert's reference to Michael Jackson as total filler. He needed some room to fill. It's not that he's completely off-base regarding how people reacted to Kyle's death, and to Jackson's, but I really don't think that Goldthwait had celebrity on his mind so much when he made this film.

And you're right, to say that Kyle's death brought out "everyone's" better nature is completely wrong. I hadn't picked up on that. The death brings out the better nature of a few people, but hardly all. If everybody was a better person after Kyle died, I don't think Lance would have been quite so tortured. And there wouldn't be a hell of a lot to satirize, either.

Fox -

But the Twilight thing confuses me even more. Twilight may appeal to goth-styled kids, but it seems to be a pretty anti-death cult series if you ask me. One of the refreshing things about it is that it isn't obsessed with death and terror. It's a love story. Oh well...

I know next to nothing about the series, but obviously Ebert knows even less than I do about who its core fans are. I've been in the bookstores when these books were taking off, and the only people I ever heard getting excited about the series was aggressively non-Goth teenage white girls. Which is not to say there are no Goth fans, because I'm sure there are, but Ebert could have made just as much sense if he'd said "led by Harry Potter fans, no doubt". But then, he likes those films more than he did Twilight, so...

Also, I liked the movie pretty well, though I didn't love it. I actually preferred the extremely uncomfortable first half to the satirical second half. Strangely enough, Ebert gave it three stars, and that's what I'd give it, too. But the scene where Williams finds his son's body is really devestating. I'm not even close to being a Robin Williams fan, but when he's good, I'll admit it, and he was outstanding in that scene. He didn't just have to play straight grief and shock, he had to play disappointment and quiet disgust and shame, and he got it all out there, without a word.

I also loved the song. "Don't Be Afraid, You're Already Dead" by Arkon, if anyone's interested.

Greg said...

the only people I ever heard getting excited about the [Twilight] series was aggressively non-Goth teenage white girls.

Ha, that's the truth. My aggressively non-Goth teen soccer playing daughter read them.

From what I've read I'm betting someday there will be a cult surrounding World's Greatest Dad, led no doubt by the Apollo 13 fans.

Patricia Perry said...

Bill -

I'm with you that the first half of the film, uncomfortable as it is, plays a bit better than the second half - which is uncomfortable too, but for all the wrong reasons.

bill r. said...

Greg, I'm sorry to tell you that I think this means that your daughter is forming a death cult.

bill r. said...

Pat, I don't think the first half is uncomfortable for the RIGHT reasons. I really felt for Robin Williams's character. I felt so bad for that guy about ten minutes into the film, and that didn't let up until pretty much the last shot.

Patricia Perry said...

Bill - I guess what I meant is that the discomfort level in the first half felt real and honest and painful, whereas the satire in the second half got a little too broad and less believable.