Tearing into a media culture that caters to society’s lowest common denominator, writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait’s “God Bless America” lashes out at reality TV, YouTube and the country’s shrinking sense of human decency. While some memorably shocking moments are slightly diminished by a clichéd final act, the film is wholly unapologetic – a brutal social commentary that might be a little too blunt, even for Goldthwait’s brand of dark comedy.
If you’ve seen “The Soup” on the E! Channel, you might understand (to a reasonable degree, of course) what inspires Frank (Joel Murray) to go on a massive killing spree; the dregs of society that he is intent on eradicating, those that are “rewarded by society for behaving badly”, have finally made life unbearable for him. We see these characters parodied in the film by shows that are no more ridiculous than what actually exist – “American Idol”, “My Super Sweet Sixteen”, “Jersey Shore” – a decade ago, this would have seemed a lot more like the makings of a twisted slapstick comedy. But this is all too accurate, which also makes it a little scary; it rides the fine line between lampoon and reality.
Before I could give “GBA” a fair shake, I had to ignore the fact that Goldthwait was responsible for 2009’s inexplicably well-received “World’s Greatest Dad”, which in my opinion was a depressing, pointlessly ugly misfire. Though easily as dark and considerably angrier than its predecessor, “God Bless America” doesn’t suffer from the same murky, directionless storytelling. In fact, this one comes with a rather succinct point – or statement, I suppose – that transcends morality in order to achieve something both grimly relevant and disturbingly relatable, though you might hesitate to admit it at a dinner party.
Murray, who you might recognize from “Mad Men” and “Shameless” (or just as the youngest brother of Bill), has carved out a niche for himself with a myriad of troubled characters; in this case, he plays the tortured protagonist/antagonist, depending on your view of things.
Frank is a working stiff who suffers from migraines, insomnia, and a debilitating intolerance for the state of American society. He fantasizes about murdering his obnoxious neighbors. “No one has any shame anymore,” he says to a co-worker. “And we’re supposed to celebrate it”. Simultaneously getting fired and learning of an inoperable brain tumor, he decides he has nothing to lose: it’s time to start acting on his impulses. If that’s not enough, he reluctantly picks up a sidekick, 16-year-old Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr) who joins him after witnessing him execute one of her spoiled reality-star classmates. Frank is visibly remorseful that his actions seem necessary to make the world a better place, while the girl is overzealous, pathological and reckless in a twisted sort of naive pleasure. We’re led to believe that she’s from an abusive home; we know she respects Alice Cooper but despises Diablo Cody and people who high-five.
“God Bless America” is sometimes silly in its nonchalance, as if trying to maintain some semblance of comedy throughout, but it’s also far from being a mess. Bearing resemblance to something like “Bonnie and Clyde”, “American Psycho” and “Short Time” (yes, the zany 1990 Dabney Coleman comedy in which he believes he’s terminally ill) all rolled into one, the film is a purge of media hatred that doesn’t hide behind artsy metaphors. It is violent, opinionated and sometimes humorous (to be clear, it is disturbing and bloody, not ‘laugh-out-loud funny’) in its matter-of-fact execution, so to speak.
Don’t dismiss this one as anti-patriotic, despite what is unquestionably a sarcastic title (to emphasize this, there’s an American flag displayed somewhere in almost every sequence). There isn’t much room for interpretation, nothing figurative here, and thankfully only dips its toe in politics; the film is mainly a reinforcement of the Golden Rule, which has deteriorated dramatically over the last few decades. Is it the literal message we want to get out there? Of course not. But as a cautionary measure for people who define the lowest echelon of humanity (for the purposes of this review, I’ll refer to them as ‘douchebags’), you might secretly find it worthy of applause; this film doesn’t spare any bullets on those inconsiderate souls.
We’ve seen something like this before in “Falling Down”, an ‘anti-consumerist’ commentary saddled on a character having a mental breakdown, but “God Bless America” is bound to be far more divisive than Schumacher’s film. Frank and Roxy become less discriminant in their selection of targets (you have to admit though, kids talking in a movie theater are painfully annoying), and it’s unclear what their ethical parameters are. Where will they draw the line? Is it likely that a 16-year-old girl and a jaded, suicidal middle-aged man would share the same views on politics, pop culture, and most importantly, who deserves to die? Doubtful. Other than skipping the country at some point, it becomes diluted what their collective endgame is. But it is such an unusual dynamic that it’s often fun to watch, if not an extreme fix for those of us who’ve had a terrible day at work. Clearly, most of these offenders don’t deserve what they get, but there’s bound to be a visceral connection to anyone who’s freshly embittered by some jackass they’ve recently encountered. In that regard, it’s the ultimate vicarious experience.