Bobcat Goldthwait, the king of shock standup comedy in the 1980s, continues his unlikely second career as an audacious indie filmmaker with “God Bless America.” Unfortunately, the film is a big swing and miss- way too broad and obvious to work as either comedy or satire.
A semi-remake of “Natural Born Killers,” with a little bit of “Falling Down” thrown in too, “God Bless America”‘s overarching attitude is, “death to all of my pet peeves.” Or, better yet, “everyone who’s an annoyance to me not only needs to shut up, but they deserve to die violently.”
The film stars Joel Murray (Bill’s brother, who played Freddy Rumsen on Mad Men) as Frank, a middle-aged sad sack who works a boring office job and spends his nights sitting depressed in front of the TV, staring at shows that at various times parody American Idol, TMZ, Fox News and My Super Sweet 16, among other programs.
The emptiness he observes in pop culture drives him to a murderous rage, and when he’s diagnosed with what he thinks is an inoperable brain tumor, he joins a teenaged girl (Tara Lynne Barr) on a cross-country killing spree.
I’m not sure what’s most off about the film’s premise- that it’s wrong, that it’s old news, or that it’s just so thunderingly obvious. The movie’s targets, especially Fox News, TMZ, reality shows, the Westboro Baptist Church and people who talk in movie theaters- are so fish-in-the-barrel that it’s hard to see any bravery in the filmmaker having gone after them.
It also doesn’t help that such targets as My Super Sweet 16 and William Hung would’ve been cutting edge in 2005. As for the American Idol-bashing, there was already a whole movie, 2006’s Hugh Grant/Mandy Moore comedy “American Dreamz,” that applied similar satire to both ‘Idol’ and the Bush presidency. Sure, that film was laughably toothless and unfunny, but at least it was current, and not late to the party by six years.
Not to mention- I don’t know that I buy the movie’s premise that pop culture has gotten worse over time. I’d say it’s gotten more plentiful, so that the best is better and the worst is worse. Funny that in all his channel-flipping, Frank never comes across Mad Men or Louie or The Good Wife or 30 For 30 or anything else on TV that’s not only not loathsome but sort of great.
It also doesn’t help that the movie steals many, many lines, scenes and ideas from previous films. Frank buys guns from a guy who keeps making casual racist comments- just like Michael Douglas did in “Falling Down,” and that gun dealer steals a whole sentence, verbatim, from Samuel L. Jackson in “Jackie Brown.” The script is also full of long speeches that are so smug, and so not fitting of the people giving them, that they sound like outtakes from Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom.
It’s sad, considering Goldthwait’s last film, “World’s Greatest Dad,” was an audacious near-masterpiece, and one of my favorite movies of the last few years. It took on multiple subjects- loathing of kids by their parents, plus the way America grieves- that aren’t nearly as well-worn, and took things in a much ballsier direction.
“God Bless America” is content to merely point at things that most people think are stupid and say “gee, look how stupid those things are!” It’s “Natural Born Killers,” only without all the stupid fire effects.