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Greatest Dad, Big Fan offer winning portraits of losers

Robin Williams and Patton Oswalt engage with darkly comic portraits of quiet desperation

It’s an offense to the natural order. Occasionally you’ll go to the movies and realize that the people in the audience are cooler and better-looking than the characters on the screen. It’s as if the losers, pretenders and flops, the Travis Bickles and Rupert Pupkins, are on the verge of taking over the movies.

When the majority of films specialize in glamorous, larger-than-life fantasies, it’s often a shock when cinema focuses on the petty and pathetic. Christopher Guest and Ricky Gervais excel at cringe-comedies about clueless no-talents, while more serious filmmakers such as Todd Solondz and Alexander Payne find more darkly funny dimensions of American failure. Their antiheroes frequently come across as pathetic, but not sympathetic, and the films waver between respect for characters who cling to their delusions, and contempt for their aspirations to better their miserable lives.

The ironically titled World’s Greatest Dad follows Lance Clayton (Robin Williams), who lives a dreary, mediocre life compared to most Hollywood screen subjects. In the pecking order of movie loserdom, though, Lance looks like a success story on the level of a Kennedy or a Diddy compared to Big Fan’s Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt). Both films confront the meager men with shocking events that turn their bad lives worse, but that could also transform them for the better. World’s Greatest Dad and Big Fan also feature compelling, serious performances from former stand-up comics. (Yes, Robin Williams, too. I’m as surprised as you.)

Despite his mock-heroic name, Lance sinks into irrelevance as a middle-aged high school poetry teacher and aspiring, unpublished writer. His pretty, quirky girlfriend (Alexie Gilmore) clearly seems out of his league and may be a bit too chummy with a hunky, popular colleague. A single dad, Lance and his surly teenage son Kyle (Daryl Sabara) view each other with mutual embarrassment. When they arrive at school one morning, Kyle snarls, “Lance, I don’t want to look like a dillweed walking in with you.” And that’s one of his few printable lines. Sabara, unrecognizable from the Spy Kids trilogy, radiates hostility and sexual obsessiveness. In a telling touch, he also has a greasy complexion, like they’ve Vaselined his face.

As director, gonzo comedian Bobcat Goldthwait turns World’s Greatest Dad into a surprisingly controlled high school satire reminiscent of Election and Heathers. (Kyle even has a Goth classmate named Heather.) An unfortunate accident finally gives Lance the chance to connect with people through his writing, and he finds his students and peers surprisingly easy to manipulate. He wins fame and respect — a daytime talk show host identifies him as “father/hero” — as long as he’s willing to maintain a fraud.

Few actors carry as much baggage as Robin Williams. With rare exceptions like Aladdin, his rapid-fire shtick can be unbearable on the big screen and flashes of it can sabotage his serious work. Recall his warm, subtle turn in Dead Poets Society: You can’t help but remember his movie star impressions before his adoring students. In World’s Greatest Dad, he suppresses his quirks and makes Lance into a study of quiet desperation. Even his weak jokes feel unforced and deliberately unfunny for a chance.

Oswalt has a more sardonic presence as a stand-up comedian. His performance in Big Fan has similarities to his voice work in Ratatouille. As "Paul of Staten Island," he enjoys modest notoriety as a regular caller on a late-night sports-talk radio show. When Oswalt asserts the dominance of his favorite team New York Giants, he’s kind of like Remy the rat talking about French cuisine. Oswalt’s delivery has a rawness that conveys want — not so much satiation as the craving for more, whether the perfect meal or a play-off victory. While Big Fan earns some belly laughs, it primarily works as a character study of an overgrown adolescent.

Paul lives with his disappointed mother and works as a parking deck attendant, writing out his radio rants in a notebook ahead of time. On game days, he and fellow fan Sal (Kevin Corrigan) go out to Giants Stadium — just to listen to the games from the parking lot. When Paul happens to see his favorite athlete, linebacker Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm), he gets a chance to meet his idol. Paul’s hero worship has an almost homoerotic turn. He has a poster of Quantrell over his bed, and he’d rather spy at the football player in a club than look at the strippers. Watching Paul muster up his courage to meet Quantrell is almost unbearable, and their encounter goes worse than anyone could imagine.

Big Fan writer/director Robert D. Siegel also wrote the screenplay for The Wrestler and shows a similar insight to the subcultures and rituals of sports culture. Most stories about obsessed fans turn the admirers into murderous stalkers. Siegel, however, portrays Paul as comparable to the victim in a dysfunctional co-dependent relationship, quick to make excuses for abusive behavior. Paul exists in a world so narrow, he cannot or will not imagine any possibilities outside of it. Instead of improving his life, he focuses on an insignificant rivalry with another caller, "Philadelphia Phil" (Michael Rapaport), an Eagles fan. When Paul dons football face paint at Big Fan’s climax, it’s equivalent to Robert De Niro’s mohawk in Taxi Driver, but fortunately the film remains consistent with Paul’s modest world view.

Like Observe and Report, another of 2009’s “loser” films, World’s Greatest Dad and Big Fan end with the central character running in slow motion, accompanied by a soaring rock standard. In World’s Greatest Dad, the tone seems out of sync with the film’s caustic vision, but the scenes all suggest the illusion of escape, as if the characters have won freedom from their fetters. They can’t, however, run away from themselves.