Content warning: Suicide
I recently had the rather interesting pleasure of stumbling across the 2009 film World’s Greatest Dad while trawling through my Amazon Prime account, desperate to find some piece of semicompetent entertainment to drag me away from my dissertation for a couple of hours. The film starred the late Robin Williams as a much put-upon single father, English teacher and aspiring (unpublished) writer Lance Clayton. Clayton is a man with quite a lot on his plate, beyond his inability to get a single scrap of recognition for his literary efforts.
His romantic partner, as well as most of his students seem to be enamoured with a rival “cool” teacher and his fifteen-year old son, Kyle (Daryl Sabara) is a misanthropic, bratty, pornography obsessed underachiever on the verge of being transferred to a special needs school. Yet, Clayton’s life changes upon one day discovering that his son has accidently died from autoerotic asphyxiation – which basically means that he tried to beat his meat while hanging himself and it didn’t go quite according to plan. In a desperate bid to preserve his son’s dignity, Clayton hides all evidence of sexual activity, arranges his son’s body so that it appears Kyle has hanged himself, even taking to the time to write a fake suicide note from Kyle’s perspective and placing it in the boy’s pocket.
I’ll have to admit, the film takes a little too long to build up to this point, which is the driving force of the darkly comic action that permeates the rest of the film. Dark comedies, in my opinion, need to start bad and grow cumulatively worse-often requiring a rather bad spark to ignite a sequence of increasingly disastrous and bizarre events. Think of In Bruges, wherein the heap of corpses left by the end of the film-mostly as a result of stupidity, arrogance and ignorance on the part of the film’s central characters-is kicked into action by a hitman’s accidental murder of a child.
Another thing that black comedy films require to work is very high stakes in order to force its characters into undertaking increasingly farcical (and grim) actions in order to avoid, escape, or put right…whatever it is they are trying to avoid, escape or put right. In my opinion, World’s Greatest Dad meanders just a little too long on the life of Clayton before his son’s accidental death-as it is the accidental death and Clayton’s desperate attempts to cover up the sorted details surrounding it that both raise the stakes of the film and kicks most of the more absurd aspects of the storyline into action.
This depiction of how victims of suicide are unquestionably handed the mantle of martyrdom is very reminiscent of the fabricated spree of suicides
Following the news of Kyle’s suicide and the unexpected publication of Clayton’s fabricated suicide note in the student newspaper, Kyle is bizarrely elevated into a martyr, celebrated by the teachers and students that once derided him (quite rightly) as a pervert and a moron. Students begin approaching Clayton, insisting that Kyle’s tragic story has changed their lives-in one strange minor plotline for the better, as one bullying ‘jock’ reveals that the fake suicide note and the subsequent fake journal that Clayton creates to reinforce his lie, have saved this nameless jock from ending his own life.
Indeed, most amusing of all is the sudden fascination of the school’s female pupils, who begin to squabble over their rival, post-mortem fantasies of the dead boy. Clayton’s fabricated journal garners the interest of many publishers, the school library is renamed in Kyle’s honour-mostly the alleviate the guilt of the Principal who, let us not forget, wanted to cart Kyle off to a special needs school (his words, not mine) as swiftly as possible-and, most amusingly of all, Clayton is invited on an American talk show to discuss the death of his son, during which Lance struggles desperately to keep a straight face whilst lauding all of his son’s fictitious positive qualities.
This depiction of how victims of suicide are unquestionably handed the mantle of martyrdom is very reminiscent of the fabricated spree of suicides-and one genuine suicide attempt-the forms a major part of Heather’s storyline, especially the part of the film where that one batty teacher – I forget her name – rallies all the students together to hold hands and demonstrate their solidarity before a mob of exploitative journalists.
The cult of Kyle is equally absurd and equally superficial and, perhaps most importantly of all, is equally unlikely to do anything to prevent suicide in the long term. Indeed, one of the more harrowing moments of the film-though, perhaps, only in retrospect-is when Robin Williams (while on the talk show) chucks out the hackneyed line that “suicide in a permanent solution to a temporary problem”, taking great care to look right into the camera as he does so. Indeed, the whole film takes on a wholly tragic tone when one remembers the not too distant suicide of the film’s leading actor, the brilliant and talented Robin Williams.
Yet, who am I to describe Robin Williams as brilliant and talented-well, he was, but he was also much more than the actor and comedian that the world came to so greatly appreciate. I think that sometimes we forget that about celebrities. We are too busy, like the insincere sycophants of the Kyle cult, either superficially worshipping these celebrities into ruination until their careers phase into non-existence, they tell a politically incorrect joke or death claims them as his own or, alternatively, engaging in equally superficial and equally trite hate campaigns towards or virtue signalling on behalf of celebrity figures.
If World’s Greatest Dad tells us anything, it’ that the grieving process should be personal, quiet and dignified
More amusing than that is our attempts to recruit the already dead-usually to a political or moral cause that we have convinced ourselves that the deceased would have absolutely supported,despite all evidence to the contrary. You see this a lot with American conservatives and their attempts to drag the corpses of George Carlin and Bill Hicks into their ideological folds. If World’s Greatest Dad tells us anything, it’ that the grieving process should be personal, quiet and dignified, free from the vapid braying and weeping of a mob that, in all likelihood, never gave much thought to the individual in question when they were alive but now, for some reason, feel obliged to comment on their deaths.