God Bless America Bobcat Goldthwait
I stumbled upon this film quite by accident, alone in a hotel room in New Jersey, flipping channels blindly, one eye on the screen, another in a book. I came to the On Demand channel and stopped, figuring something new, if not very interesting, might be playing. I hit it about ten minutes in when Frank (Joel Murray), a middle aged cubicle dweller, is complaining to his officemate about the degradation of morals and manners in our (US) culture. He sounded so much like my inner voice that I was stopped dead in my tracks. When he is subsequently called into the boss’s office and summarily fired for sending flowers to a female colleague who was having a bad day, I was hooked. The film was shown twice that evening and I watched it both times, which should give you an indication of how I responded to it.
Director Bobcat Goldthwait is one of the few filmmakers working today who is taking a direct look at popular culture and stabbing it square in the gut with bitter satire. 2009’s World’s Greatest Dad dealt bravely with both the phenomenon of autoerotic asphyxiation and every American’s lust to be famous. A teacher with literary aspirations loses his son to tragically jerking off in the closet, and fakes a suicide note to protect his reputation. He writes it so well and it receives so much attention that he is compelled to write his son’s secret “diary” as well, eating up the praise and attention he never received for his own work. That movie hit hard because it was sadly believable. God Bless America, conversely, derives its power from its absurdity.
The story revolves around the aforementioned Frank, who after being fired is cavalierly and conveniently diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. He prepares to kill himself but at the last minute changes his mind, and decides instead to kill the people that have been driving him mad; the bloviating right wing pundit, the spoiled brat on reality TV, the preacher who protests at veteran funerals. All the people he perceives as making the world a slightly shittier place to live become targets of his rage. He is joined on his killing spree by a snarky teenage girl (don’t call her Juno!) who hates the world as only a teenage girl can. Together they wreak havoc on unsuspecting assholes everywhere, easily evading capture without really trying. This last fact should clue you in to the idea that what you are watching is a fantasy, or more specifically, an allegory with biblical overtones, in which Frank becomes prophet and punisher, Jeremiah and God. This is the voice that popular culture, now owned and run almost exclusively by large corporations whose interest and prerogative is not to dissuade us from buying in, keeps safely to the margins, allowing us access, but only with the understanding that it’s coming from a fringe artist whose refusal to play by the ordinary rules that might get him a higher paycheck indicates that he’s probably a little nuts and shouldn’t be taken seriously. In fact, the culture that Goldthwait is railing against here is one in which absolutely nothing is taken seriously. How could it be? If we thought about it for more than a few seconds we would wonder what kind of ethical system would allow us to watch idiots hurting themselves or pathetic teens hurling used tampons at each other for cheap laughs. It is the role of the prophet to warn the society that its sin will lead to its destruction. Goldthwait is telling us that the breakdown in civility, our increasing predilection to treat each other with contempt sight unseen, is a harbinger of bad things to come.
Since this is basically a polemic, the standard requirements of narrative cohesion and character development become secondary. Whether you can accept this assertion will probably be a prime determinant of your appreciation of the film. For me, God Bless America was superficially enjoyable as a kind of unlikely buddy-road movie in which the protagonists are homicidal, but it really came alive when it brutally satirized horrible but highly rated TV shows and when Frank discoursed on what was ailing us. If you think Frank, or Bobcat, is just off his rocker, you’re liable to find this film either shockingly and pointlessly violent, or bland and tedious, or both. I think Goldthwait has made an intriguing and thought-provoking film, with an urgent message warning that incivility and crassness taken to an extreme breed resentment and violence.6 June, 2012 - 20:25 — Alan Shulman