‘God Bless America’ is a flawed but interesting black comedy
Published: Wednesday, April 11, 2012
Updated: Thursday, April 12, 2012 00:04
Once one of the most popular stand-up comedians of the ’80s, Bobcat Goldthwait in his later years has become a promising filmmaker, making comedies out of controversial topics.
For instance, “Sleeping Dogs Lie” is an emotional romantic drama that centers on a revelation about bestiality. “World’s Greatest Dad” deals with autoerotic asphyxiation and romanticizing the dead with poignancy and contains one of Robin Williams’ best performances. In his choice to combine humanity’s most aberrant behavior with surprising emotional depth, Goldthwait could be called a humanist misanthrope.
His newest film, “God Bless America,” leans far more toward the second part of that phrase. While there’s certainly no shortage of nerve in Goldthwait’s revenge fantasy, the film could benefit from using its characters as mouthpieces less and adding more emotion.
The plot follows Frank (Joel Murray), who is told he has a terminal brain tumor and finds himself slowly worn down by reality television, mean and inconsiderate people and a manipulative media.
One night, he decides to track down and kill teenage reality television star Chloe. While there, he finds an unlikely admirer in 16-year-old Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr) and the two embark on a trip to kill the worst members of society — from television stars to rude moviegoers.
From its first scene, “God Bless America” makes it clear it will take nothing sacred, as Frank imagines bloodily dispatching a baby. It’s also in these early moments that the film’s satire is the shakiest, hitting the same few easy targets and including a forced, unnatural monologue by Frank that seems to be a mere stand-in for the opinions of Goldthwait, who also wrote the screenplay.
Yet the satire gets increasingly assured as the film goes on, settling into a groove that resembles “Heathers” at its best, with pitch-black humor and an increasing body count. Some of the parodies are also depressingly accurate, including spot-on imitations of TMZ and “My Super Sweet 16.”
One of the film’s strongest satirical points is the “American Idol” takeoff “American Superstarz” and the William Hung-like character Steven Clark. Goldthwait is primarily taking to task a culture that mocks the innocent and naïve, though even this is complicated in a climax that resembles the movie theater scene of “Inglorious Basterds.”
The film dissects our culture — from hateful anchors and talk show hosts who hide behind the guise of being un-PC to “Juno” screenwriter Diablo Cody, who claims she actually was hurt by the jokes made about her in the film.
For all of its barbs and bloody violence, “God Bless America” seems to be calling for a decency and kindness that is missing from today’s culture and social climate. Yet, sometimes one wishes Goldthwait achieved it through more subtle means than having his characters occasionally rant at length about society’s problems.
Goldthwait’s directing abilities are certainly more assured in “God Bless America.” One early scene in particular cleverly intercuts a tantrum from Frank’s daughter with Chloe’s on-screen meltdown, and Frank’s tearful, emotional face with Chloe’s stream of profane vapidities.
Yet the emotion briefly captured in this moment and Goldthwait’s previous films is largely absent from the revenge fantasy of “God Bless America.” The closest he comes is developing a quasi-paternal relationship between Frank and Roxy during their cross-country trip of killings.
The truly unique mixture of poignancy and perverse, pitch-black humor in “World’s Greatest Dad” is missed here, however. Goldthwait might’ve made his film even more subversive if he had added some more sweetness to the bitterness.
Murray, the “Mad Men” character actor and brother of Bill Murray, turns in a fine leading performance as the uncertain face of retribution against some of society’s most repellent figures. Meanwhile, Barr is admirably fearless as a swearing, sociopathic 16-year-old. Comedians Larry Miller, Tom Kenney and Jill Talley all turn up in bit parts.
Overall, “God Bless America” is another intriguing entry in the fascinating film career of funnyman Goldthwait. He has the pitch-black humor down and an increased craft, even if it doesn’t quite reach the heights that it could. His next film should be something to see.