God Bless America Review


The way you respond to Bobcat Goldthwaite’s latest, God Bless America, might depend on your feelings toward 2010’s Kick-Ass. The two films have a lot of things in common—not the least of which is a murderous, and very nonplussed, teenage girl. In fact, the way both films deal with violence in general is very nonchalant. For crying out loud, this film opens with its lead character fantasizing about taking out his neighbors (including their baby!) with a shotgun. But Goldthwaite’s dialogue cuts so deep that the moral implications of liking this film mostly fade to the background. This is a darker-than-dark comedy that takes aim at many deserving targets and just obliterates them with equal parts honesty and gloriously bloody satire.

Frank (Joel Murray), presumably a stand-in for Goldthwaite himself, is fed up with American popular culture. He doesn’t like the way it’s stripped many of us of our decency and shame. It seems to reward the worst qualities in us, which gives rise to louder, cruder, and more mean-spirited behavior from our so-called “stars.” After losing his job and finding out he has an inoperable brain tumor, Frank contemplates suicide. But after an eye-opening night of channel surfing, he comes up with a different idea. He’s traveling from New York to Virginia to kill the subject of that night’s My Super Sweet 16-style show. Why? She just doesn’t deserve to live.

While in Virginia, he meets Roxie (Tara Lynne Barr)—a lonely but very chatty girl who’s in awe of Frank’s cavalier attitude. After telling him about her awful living situation (her mom is a meth addict and her step-father rapes her every night), he agrees to let her tag along with him while he attempts to give some of the worst of us what they’ve got coming to them.

Goldthwaite seems to jump through hoops to make Frank and Roxie as tragic of characters as possible, in order to make their actions seem even remotely justifiable—or at least to give us a sense of why they’d do what they do. So we see him lose his job for no reason, get a sure-fire death sentence from his doctor, and reflect upon the uniform he wore while defending our country. She, in turn, has a tragic story, and the people they mark for death have not a single redeeming quality. It’s paint-by-numbers character work, but with a premise this, subtlety isn’t exactly a quality Goldthwaite can afford.

That said, Frank and Roxie share a handful of genuinely sweet scenes. They usually come up after she overestimates his feelings for her and he, in turn, knocks her down a peg or two. It’s interesting the lengths he goes to in order to make sure he, she, and everyone around them knows their relationship isn’t in any way sexual. As such, he’s constantly acknowledging her as a young girl, yet he takes her emotional stability for granted. So on the few occasions when he takes a step back and tells her that she is, in fact, pretty, or that maybe they really will go to France and start a real life together, the film feels more real and more satisfying.

The kills themselves are, in most cases, incredibly gleeful. Frank and Roxie go after a Westboro Baptist-esque preacher, a right-wing blowhard modeled eerily after Bill O’Reilly, some truly mean-spirited “American Superstarz” judges, and the aforementioned princess from the My Super Sweet 16-type show. As much as we might dislike these people in real life, no one thinks they deserve to die (I’d like to make that as plain and clear as possible, please!), but there is something terribly fun about watching them get offed by these unlikely vigilantes. It’s a lot like Boondock Saints, but the crimes committed by these “victims” are of a much different sort.

The two lead performances here are solid, but they take a backseat to the story and Goldthwaite’s ingenious screenplay. Neither Joel Murray nor Tara Lynne Barr were familiar faces before this, but they have strong chemistry, and Murray in particular has quite a presence. Though his character has some undeniable mental problems, he carries himself in a very proud way. One gets the sense that Frank thinks he’s sacrificing his life and well-being for the ultimate betterment of humanity, and that this task is a truly noble one. We know, of course, that it’s not, and as such, pretty much every instance of his grandstanding is smartly mitigated in a moment of Thelma and Louise-like cavalierness.

It’s a little surprising God Bless America hasn’t engendered more controversy on its way into theaters because Goldthwaite skewers some high-profile figures in very un-PC ways, but perhaps that will change once more people see the film. It’s not the kind of thing most audiences will enjoy, but check your conscience at the door, and you’ll be in for a wild and extremely fun ride.

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  1. Pingback: Tuesday’s Top 10: Black Comedy Films – CINENARC

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