REVIEW: God Bless America Chokes to Death on Bobcat Goldthwait's Nihilism
Comedian-turned-director Bobcat Goldthwait has always displayed an incredibly dark sense of humor in his work behind the camera, from his 1991 alcoholic birthday party performer debut Shakes the Clown to bestiality-themed rom-com Sleeping Dogs Lie to World's Greatest Dad, in which Robin Williams plays a high-school English teacher whose son's death becomes a way for him to realize his unfulfilled dreams of being a writer. But no matter how black the comedy, these films had warmth to them, too, and the possibility of things getting better and characters, however painfully, changing and growing.
That's not the case in God Bless America, Goldthwait's latest effort, an overly bleak film ready to write off the world and go down in a blaze of gunfire, both middle fingers raised. Joel Murray plays Frank, a divorced father and depressed office worker who gets laid off and diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor all in the same day, providing enough push for him to finally load up his revolver and set off on the murderous spree he's been dreaming of for years. "I know it's not normal to want to kill," he muses in the opening voiceover, "but I also know that I am no longer normal." When making his first hit, of a bratty teenage reality show star named Chloe (Maddie Hasson), he picks up a surprise sidekick named Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), a smart, alienated high schooler who thinks that what Frank did is the best thing she's ever seen. The two partner up and Bonnie and Clyde their way along a bloody road to nowhere while working out the logistics of who it is they're targeting.
Frank hates people who are inconsiderate, who are rude and who take pleasure in making fun of others. Roxy hates more specifically — NASCAR fans, people who high-five, Diablo Cody. As for who Goldthwait hates, you get the sense it's all of the above and more — anyone who watches American Idol, anyone who competes on American Idol, morning show radio hosts, cable news blowhards, the Tea Party, parents who overindulge their children and people who talk during movies (the last leads to the film's most rewarding scene). God Bless America sets these figures up to mow them down, and while there's a minor satisfaction to be taken from seeing these bloody revenge fantasies brought to life — take that, Westboro Baptist Church! — the film's judgments come so easily, its targets portrayed as so one-dimensional that it feels like a cheat.
The world in which the film is set is so universally monstrous that it deserves to be blown up, but it's an embittered, exaggerated take, a giant straw-man argument. When Frank flips on the television, all he sees are people making fun of a mentally disabled reality show contestant. When Frank gets the news of his illness, his doctor takes a call in the middle, from his car dealership. And when Frank tries to talk with his daughter about her upcoming weekend with him, she tries to extort a present from him in exchange for coming.
It's only Roxy to whom Frank can relate, with her kewpie doll face and ability to rant about the greatness of Alice Cooper. The scenes of Frank and Roxy hanging out are the film's only soft spots, their relationship a gentle but precarious mix of paternal and platonically romantic. Roxy eggs Frank on and keeps him going, masterminding their murderous binge, but she's rarely seems solid in the way that Frank does. She's a figure of wish fulfillment, a vessel for what feel like the filmmaker's direct complaints with the world as well as his fondnesses, a teenage girl who loves Star Trek and throws herself at our resistant protagonist, who is hypersensitive about being perceived as a pedophile.
Visual inventiveness isn't Goldthwait's strong suit as a director, but God Bless America does represent a step forward there, with stand-out moments including an overhead shot showing just how close Frank is to his noisy neighbors or a failed attempt at walking away from an explosion, action hero-style, without looking back. Goldthwait is best and most brutal at recreating the worst of TV — an early scene in which the insomniac Frank flips through the channels includes savage and dead-on takes on Fox News, Jersey Shore-style reality clashes, energy drink commercials, Jackass and, yes, American Idol. Sure, it's a line-up that would be enough to make you want to shoot somebody, but also those aren't the only things on air. God Bless America only wants to see the worst in people — in fact actively seeks it out in order to be disgusted, and that feels almost as bad as the behavior the film is critiquing.
One of the few characters who's let off the hook is the boyfriend of Frank's ex, a cheery, dumb and genuinely well-meaning cop who spots our hero waiting outside his former wife's house and stops by to say hi. When asked by Roxy whether Frank wants to kill the man, he tells her no, "I want him to suffer." It's only a sucker who'd stick around to live life in this film, and that's too bitter a pill to be swallowed.