God Bless America
In his new black comedy God Bless America, writer-director Bobcat Goldthwait vents about some of the cultural detritus that annoys him — or, given the typical lead time for low-budget indie cinema, the stuff that annoyed him a few years ago. American Idol! Spoiled reality-show princesses! People who chat on their cell phones during a movie! People who take up two parking spaces! Fuck those people, amirite? At the risk of sounding like one of the trendoids Goldthwait despises, this is all so 2004 (at the very latest). The movie does gesture at more recent irritants like the Tea Party, but even that reaches back a few years, and the bit about the Fred Phelps-style protesters might’ve felt fresher if Kevin Smith’s Red State hadn’t scooped it. God Bless America isn’t a bad movie, but it’s a step back from the more daring material Goldthwait’s been doing, like 2009’s World’s Greatest Dad, or even his directing debut, 1992’s criminally underrated Shakes the Clown.
Joel Murray, Bill’s younger brother, is Frank, a sad sack who gets fired and learns that he may have a brain tumor. Even before that, though, Frank is fantasizing about storming into his cretinous neighbors’ apartment and blowing away their incessantly crying baby with a shotgun. He’s obviously unstable and ready to pop, and a night of channel-surfing through the various outrages on TV squeezes his mental pimple. Frank seems to fixate on a Will Hung-type contestant on an American Idol-like show as proof that America has become a nation of cruel, vapid bullies. While stalking an insufferable reality-show brat, Frank meets a teenager, Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), who’s as disaffected as he is. For a while, Roxy might be Frank’s imaginary friend, spurring him on to a killing spree, though that possibility ends when a cop sees her in Frank’s stolen car. Too bad, because that might’ve been an interesting touch.
We spend most of our time watching Frank and Roxy platonically hanging out in between killing annoying people. The killings are presented in such a deadpan, facile manner — these two don’t murder in the heat of rage, they just coolly execute the rude — that I kept thinking it was all in Frank’s head, especially since the pair go so long without getting caught despite carrying out most of their crimes in broad daylight in a bright yellow car. How literally are we meant to take the killing spree? Sometimes Goldthwait seems to intend Frank and Roxy as avatars of his and our own disgust, particularly when he gives Frank lengthy, vituperative speeches that sound like Goldthwait talking. It’s probably cathartic as hell for Goldthwait, but a lot of the targets, as I said, are made of very stale straw.
Here’s the problem: Aside from the fact that many of Goldthwait’s pet peeves aren’t exactly up-to-the-minute — which means God Bless America is dated now and will only get more so — only someone in the foulest mood would define an entire country by passing fads and fringe idiots. I kept waiting for Frank to exhibit some icky, troubling behavior (other than killing folks, of course) that would discomfit us for enjoying his crimes. Joel Murray occasionally lets his face go dangerously slack, looking like the stone psychos we see on TV after a mass murder, but mostly Frank’s presented as a regular schmoe who goes rogue. I hate to say it, but Observe and Report was a lot more disturbing — yes, a major-studio film starring Seth Rogen was edgier than a Bobcat Goldthwait film that begins with a man daydreaming about killing an infant. That’s partly because that film was subverting what the audience expected from a Seth Rogen flick and partly because Rogen’s rage was both organic and non-specific. And I guess it isn’t Goldthwait’s fault that the unbalanced-dude-with-grrl-sidekick thing was done so recently, and better, in Kick-Ass and Super.
I don’t hold Goldthwait’s past as a funny-voiced stand-up comedian and Police Academy regular against him. I think he’s one of the most original comedy directors we’ve got. He’s done bold stuff before, and I hope he gets a chance to do it again, but God Bless America feels like a project he got the money to make from some like-minded financiers — yeah, man, stick it to those American Idol judges! (The shot at a Simon Cowell-style judge seems kind of forlorn now that the actual Cowell’s been off the show for, what, two years now?) And by the time he got behind the camera, the anger had dissipated — that’s the problem with directing your own rage-fueled script you started writing years ago; it’s hard to sustain that level of bile for so long. So we don’t feel Frank’s fury, nor are we horrified by his actions. We don’t feel much of anything, and that’s not something I ever expected to say about a Goldthwait film.