When you hear of a film like God Bless America that is blatantly exploiting a high concept to wring out the filmmaker’s every personal frustration on screen, you immediately wonder how it’s going to avoid being a soapbox film. Well in the case of his latest, Bobcat Goldthwait decided not to avoid the problem but to embrace it with open arms, making God Bless America an un-winking screed against every annoyance — major and minor — he’s ever felt in the face of contemporary American culture. Filled with unending rants and rapid-fire exchanges of concepts, phrases, and groups of people that annoy Bobcat’s surrogate and his young sidekick, the film is shameless wish-fulfillment for those frustrated by anything from Fox News pundits, to reality TV stars, to people who give physical high-fives.
The story begins as we are introduced to Frank (Joel Murray), a reasonably well-adjusted and relatable working stiff who is both divorced and plagued by migraines. Through narration, violent momentary fantasies, and long diatribes we learn that Frank is at his wit’s end with all those silly things that most generally intelligent people find annoying to one degree or another. The problem is that Frank is annoyed with all of them all at once, and discovering that he has an inoperable tumor in his head he decides to violently strike out. When murdering a twat of a reality TV star at a nearby high school doesn’t go quite as planned (in a hilarious little rug-pull involving a slow-motion walkaway) Frank picks up a troubled teenaged girl named Roxy (the sickly sweet Tara Lynne Barr) who shares many of his frustrations.
Quickly the problems with the film begin to surface, the biggest being that God Bless America is an unapologetic, violent jerkoff fantasy that doesn’t fully embrace its own point of view. Making the mistake of trying to soften up the misanthropy and head off the conservative criticisms (which are obviously unavoidable), the film tries to undercut its own narrow perspective. While Frank’s hate-list often involves hyper-specific frustrations, he sticks to the idea that he’ll only kill people who deserve it, which are ultimately people that are in some way “mean.” The problem is this is not consistently stuck to, nor does the film really play much with the flawed premise of its character’s quest. It also takes away some of the fun- I want to see a movie like this precisely so I can enjoy the thought of actually obliterating an undeserving butthole for some stupid thing that I just happen to find annoying!
There’s also an attempt to clash Frank’s views with Roxy’s, which tend much more toward the extreme. Blurry lines are drawn between Frank murdering a right-wing pundit because he’s “not nice” rather than his politics, while Roxy gleefully pumps him full of lead exactly because of his politics. And while everyone can pretty much get off to seeing analogues of Westboro Church protestors being splattered, I’m shocked that the ultimate target of Frank’s ire is an American Idol stand-in show. Instead of picking some profoundly vacuous and culturally damaging reality show like Jersey Shore, he instead goes after a relativity inoffensive game show that actually involves some creativity and talent. Frank lays out a thin line of logic about the show being an exploitation circus with no talent involved, but it reads as weak and outdated. The clear specificity of the criticism becomes a problem for this particular satire whereas in, say, Idiocracy, there’s a bit of distance from cultural specifics and more targeting of cultural corporatization and anti-intellectual trends that keep it from drawing lines with the audience.
Perhaps the issue is that Goldthwait writes Frank is as if he’s trying to head off criticism at every pass, going out of his way to keep the Bonnie & Clyde partnership platonic and Frank’s ethos understandable. Several times the film has Frank making it seem like keeping his relationship with Roxy platonic is a “duh, you sicko” choice, but the tension still persists in the film and dismantles that high ground in a seemingly unintended way. Had Goldthwait or Frank truly found it obvious that he wouldn’t be attracted to a kid, then it would have been wiser to simply not create nor acknowledge any tension! Beyond that is that Roxy is equally stuffed full of overwritten diatribes to regurgitate, sometimes aimed at such specific targets as Diablo Cody’s screenwriting. It’s pot-meet-kettle moments like these you just have to kind of twiddle your thumbs and whistle until the monologue tuckers itself out.
Frankly, God Bless America would work better had Goldthwait thrown it all to the wind and embraced the obvious psychopathy required for a human being to do these things. We could still relate to Frank if he were a narrow-perspective nutcase who also happens to share many of our frustrations, as opposed to force-feeding some weak-sauce idea of rules that are guiding Frank’s trigger-finger. That combined with the on-the-nose diatribes — which are as overlong as they are funny — makes God Bless America hard to praise as more than a fun, throwaway violent comedy. It contrasts pretty directly with Super, which fully embraced the sick, twisted premise and set very clear rules that accentuated the main character’s insanity and the fucked up relationship driving him. Here things are much muddier.
On the filmmaking side of things, Goldthwait’s has only grown more confident behind the camera, and while the low-budget occasionally peeks through, it’s a slick film overall. A few scattered cameos aside, the films is all Murray and Barr’s show, and they handle it beautifully and with great chemistry (even when the script doesn’t have a perfect handle on the relationship). Goldthwait is still a valuable talent in the dark indie-comedy world, even if this isn’t his crowning achievement and doesn’t live up to the wonderful World’s Greatest Dad. It’s still worth your time though, if only for the genuinely sublime moments of violent relief and cutting cultural criticism that do burst through from time to time.
Ultimately I’m glad Bobcat has gotten these issues out of his system, and I can’t wait to see what comes after the purge.