When you hear that Robin Williams is starring in a comedy called World's Greatest Dad, the sane response is to run for the hills: after all, Williams's last parentally themed offering was Old Dogs, which should have been taken to a vet and put to sleep.
World's Greatest Dad, though, is a different matter. Starting as a downbeat indie mood piece, it builds, slowly and stealthily, into the bravest, sharpest, and, yes, greatest comedy of the year.
Williams stars as a divorced high-school teacher whose achievements amount to five unpublished novels and a teenage son, played by Daryl Sabara, who is as rude and sullen as it's possible for a human being to be, ie, he's about average for a boy of his age. I won't reveal any more of the story – this is one film in which the surprises should remain surprises – but World's Greatest Dad goes on to trample taboos with a boldness that would have Judd Apatow and the Farrelly brothers quaking. Bobcat Goldthwait has written and directed an outrageous, blackly comic satire, and yet it's also a desperately moving personal story: as magnificently repulsive as Sabara is, you can always believe that his father loves him. This is mainly due to Goldthwait's nuanced screenplay, but it's also because of Williams's subtle performance – and how often can you say that?
If Williams's reputation has dropped since he was in Good Will Hunting, it hasn't plunged as far as that of Ben Affleck, whose run of atrocious films in the early Noughties turned him from a leading man to a standing joke. Still, Affleck got the last laugh when he directed and co-wrote an excellent detective thriller, Gone Baby Gone, and his rehabilitation continues apace with his second film as director, The Town, another Boston-set crime drama.
Affleck also stars in this one, playing a career crook who has never left Charlestown, his blue-collar boyhood neighbourhood. After a successful bank raid, he and his team are concerned that the bank's assistant manager, Rebecca Hall, might be talking to the FBI, so he agrees to stalk her, but ends up asking her out for a drink. She, of course, has no inkling that her new suitor had pointed an assault rifle at her just days before, and the pair slip into a relationship that could destroy them both. Just as likely destroyers, though, are Affleck's short-fused friend, The Hurt Locker's Jeremy Renner, and an FBI Agent on the robbers' trail, Mad Men's John Hamm.
All The Town's ingredients are traditional ones – the noble thief, the golden-hearted girlfriend who inspires him to go straight, the unstable associate pressuring him to do One Last Job – but it's the kind of intelligent, well-acted, tautly scripted thriller that is all too rare. Like Gone Baby Gone, it has the pungent tang of an authentic setting: a square mile where robbery is a way of life. There's an earthy reality to the action, too. You can almost feel the jolts when cars crash, and you'll duck when shots are fired.
Eat Pray Love, based on Elizabeth Gilbert's best-selling memoir, stars Julia Roberts as Elizabeth, a celebrated author with an enviable house and a devoted, handsome husband. Naturally, this state of affairs leaves her feeling vaguely dissatisfied, so she gets a divorce and takes a year off to go abroad. It's a curious decision for a travel writer who's been all over the world already, but it seems that Elizabeth has done most of her globe-trotting with her eyes closed. At her first port of call, Rome – the "Eat" part of the triptych – this native New Yorker views pizza and pasta as exotic delicacies, and is amazed to learn that Italians use hand gestures when they talk. Next she goes to India – the "Pray" section – where she discovers even less about the local culture. The whole time she's there, she's ensconced in an ashram, with an "air-conditioned meditation cave", getting spiritual guidance from a Texan called Richard. And then it's off to Bali, where Javier Bardem is waiting at a beach bar to provide the "Love". The message, it seems, is that wherever you go in the world, your best friends will be white people who speak fluent English.
Eat Pray Love looks nice, but nothing happens to Elizabeth that isn't in the title. Take away the vapid self-help psychobabble, and the film is basically a maddeningly slow slide show of someone else's holiday snaps.
Nicholas Barber sees Made In Dagenham, another true-life feminist Brit-com from the director of Calendar Girls
Also Showing: 26/09/2010
Frozen (93 mins, 15)
Remember Open Water – the low-budget, high-concept survival-horror film which stranded a couple of scuba divers in the middle of the ocean? Frozen is a similar, but superior game of what-would-you-do?, in which three students (above) are stuck in a chairlift half-way up a mountain, a hundred feet off the ground, with no chance of rescue for a week.
Thanks to the engaging characters, the location shooting, and a writer-director who's thought through the situation's every possibility, it's all horribly believable. And what's that howling in the distance?
Dragon Hunters (80 mins, PG)
After Avatar and How To Train Your Dragon, this French cartoon's floating islands and flying beasties have a Johnny-come-lately flavour, and its story and characters don't match those of its American predecessors. But Dragon Hunters' exquisite visuals and apocalyptic tone make it worth seeking out. At times it's downright surreal, and potentially too dark and strange for very young viewers. If you want to know what Terry Gilliam's dreams must look like, now's your chance to see.
Peepli Live (104 mins, 15)
An indebted Indian farmer decides to commit suicide because he thinks that a government compensation scheme will save his family's land. But when a reporter finds out, the media circus comes to town. Scattershot satire that hits some of its targets.
Confucius (110 mins, 15)
Chow Yun-Fat plays the hallowed Chinese philosopher – and, apparently, crackshot archer – in this period epic. Panoramic views, spectacular pageantry, thundering battles, the lot.