God Bless America
dir. Bobcat Goldthwait
Release Date: May 11, 12
God Bless America is a movie preaching to a choir of individuals who need to hear an entirely different lesson than the one the film espouses. Frank (Joel Murray) is a inwardly articulate war veteran and everyday Joe who’s been whittled down to nothing by the America he wakes up in every day. He turns on the television and bears witness to a neverending torrent of trash, in which mental deficiency is featured on television talent contests for the public’s entertainment, where genuine kindness is rare and empathy is rarer still. He watches women fling used tampons at one another and talking heads on cable news berate and humiliate anybody who dares offer a dissenting opinion. He has no friends, and his preteen daughter resents him; she’s the walking embodiment of everything Frank hates about vapid American culture. He also has an inoperable brain tumor.
Finally, Frank has enough, and sticks a gun in his mouth, ready to no longer be part of a world he hates. Then, he experiences a revelation. Instead of taking his own life and removing one more conscientious objector from the ranks, he’ll travel the U.S. with a gun and a purpose, laying waste to the pseudo-celebrities who make the world a terrible place. After his first kill, he encounters Roxie (Tara Lynne Barr), an unhinged 15-year-old who wants nothing more than to fix the world using Frank’s kill-‘em-all methods. Frank and Roxie become the gun-toting Howard Beales of the current generation, travelling America in hopes of fixing America through the very kind of violence it loves. They’re also two walking mouthpieces for writer-director Bobcat Goldthwait, whose first two films (Sleeping Dogs Lie and the masterful World’s Greatest Dad) dealt with the things we don’t politely talk about in public. Maybe that’s the problem with America: everybody talks about this in public, and Goldthwait isn’t saying anything that hasn’t been said before. He’s just doing it with outlandish gore.
The screenplay is less a narrative than a series of monologues strung together, in which Goldthwait aggressively airs his grievances with an America that’s lost its soul, its ability to be kind and nice. That sounds pithy, but it’s not wholly an invalid opinion, and there’s hardly a better filmmaker working today to make that kind of point using pitch-black comedy and a healthy dose of relentless sadism. Simultaneously, though, the film’s hyper-talky structure drags it down after a while, as it falls into a pattern of Frank and Roxie murdering somebody, arguing about what they’re doing and who should be next, sharing a sweet moment and repeating until the film ultimately ends as it must. The shame is that Murray and Barr give a pair of performances so excellent that they deserve a more focused film than this one. The scenes in which Frank and Roxie slow down long enough to appreciate finding a like-minded friend in the world have a genuine heart that sustains the increasing absurdity around them. They’re excellent, in fact, to the point that the film’s glaring flaws almost don’t matter. Almost.
The one bit of the film that stops it from greatness, and almost sinks it at times, is Goldthwait’s unwillingness to acknowledge that Frank and Roxie are sociopaths. That’s not a value judgment so much as an empirical bit of evidence proven by their increasingly broad definitions of who has to die for them to accomplish their mission. The film would work if Goldthwait was open to acknowledging that the people opining about how burning pop culture to the ground and starting over are every bit as hazardous as the things they hate. They’re all propagating the kind of profound unkindness that’s clearly made Goldthwait so sad, just in different forms. But he doesn’t. Rather, he wants Frank and Roxie to be rebel heroes, the Natural Born Killers for a new decade. For some, they absolutely will be; this is nothing if not a film destined for midnight screenings the nation over. For others, they’ll simply seem like lunatics. The problem is they’re actually somewhere in between, a location that God Bless America misses a perfect chance to explore.