Sean K. Cureton

Dissastisfaction, Violence, and American Idol

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on March 29, 2014 at 10:43 am

Theatrical Poster
God Bless America (2011)
Directed Bobcat Goldthwait
Netflix Rating: Liked It

In a career that has come to be defined by a certain personal dissatisfaction and manic energy constantly threatening to erupt into retributive violence, Bobcat Goldthwait’s fourth feature film, God Bless America, delivers on all of the latent hostility and resentment of an otherwise suppressed personality. Borrowing from a lot of his own stand up material from over the years, Goldthwait’s God Bless America is a dark comedy in the same grain as his 2009 film World’s Greatest Dad, but with a little more bite in its cynical indictments of a culture dominated by vacuous reality TV personalities and fear mongering political rhetoric, both on the news and in the White House. While much of the film feels irresponsible, at times attacking well known individuals and groups purely for a lack of aesthetic taste or intellectual subtlety, the rest of the film works quite well despite itself, using the embellishment of cinematic violence to drive Goldthwait’s point home. At times harking back to such touchstone films as Bonnie and Clyde and Taxi Driver, God Bless America takes on the task of hard boiled cultural analysis boldly, even if its overall execution is lacking, its allusions to the two aforementioned cinematic classics being the only thing that it actually shares with them. Nevertheless, God Bless America might be Goldthwait’s best film to date, providing the well-known comic with a mouthpiece to voice all of his socio-political viewpoints with succinct comprehensiveness and comic panache.

God Bless America centers around the life of Frank (Joel Murray), middle aged, divorced, and terminally ill. To add insult to injury, Frank is also the victim of two unruly blue-collar neighbors and their cacophonous infant, an ungrateful, spoiled brat of a daughter, and a group of co-workers whose soul collective purpose appears to consist in watching and dissecting the very same reality television programs that Frank abhors. Once Frank learns of his illness, however, and all of the restrictions that had previously kept him complacent and restrained fall away, Frank’s long held resentment of a culture that he sees as being founded on bullying and mean spirited egotism bursts forth in a grand plan to kill the star of a My Super Sweet 16 knockoff program. This decision then ignites the angst-ridden dissatisfaction of Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), who witnesses Frank’s murder of the reality television diva, and after a little encouragement, Frank takes on Roxy as an accomplice, and the two anti-heroes go on a self-righteous rampage of violent revenge, taking out such instigators of social disease and chaos as homophobic religious protestors, Fox News type political commentators, as well as the entire cast, crew, and audience of an American Idol type competition show. The path that the two characters carve out for themselves over the course of the film is pointedly critical and satirically clever at best, but ultimately empty of any true redemptive moments, for their victims or for themselves, which makes much of Goldthwait’s film self-indulgent and petty, even if one fundamentally agrees with the film’s basic premise and social dialogue.

Like World’s Greatest Dad, God Bless America suffers from its rather high cinematic ambitions, constantly attempting to reach levels of subtlety and wit that continue to elude Goldthwait as a director. Where Goldthwait’s eviscerating commentary on people who watch American Idol is funny and inclusive in the stand up format, the same tired rant becomes cloying and vaguely doddering when Joel Murray delivers it in the film to a conspicuously young co-worker. Watching the two characters in Goldthwait’s film take literal aim at the very worst pop cultural institutions of tastelessness and nihilistic apathy should be fun, but instead the scenes of exaggerated violence feel ethically dubious and comically un-earned, backed up only by a very vague voicing of personal displeasure and unacknowledged anger. Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver was abandoned and led mad by a world brimming with corruption and the constant threat of danger, and Bonnie and Clyde, from Arthur Penn’s classic 1964 film, were counter-cultural, folk heroes, reacting against a world that they felt was small and constricting in its conservative ideologies. In comparison, Frank and Roxy feel small and obnoxious, whining about the supposedly unearned successes of such contemporary cultural icons as Green Day and Diablo Cody, and employing a form of vigilante justice that they don’t seem to inhabit quiet as well as their cinematic forebears in an attempt to make their concerns seem more monumental than they actually are.

However, all ethical messiness and cinematic roughness aside, God Bless America is still a more than adequate film, at times reaching levels of extreme comedic highs. Even for its most trying scenes, particularly one centering on a movie theatre shooting, Goldthwait’s innate compassion and empathy bleeds through the film, reinvigorating the film’s protagonists with a basic sense of humanity that allows the viewer to forgive them there selfish and violent transgressions. It’s important to remember that Frank and Roxy aren’t psychotic killers, but merely two otherwise moral individuals who have been bullied and denigrated by a culture that no longer seems to care for them, more willing to forget them at best or dispose and abuse them at worst. The declining state of the American social consciousness is at stake in Goldthwait’s film, and the all out war that the two characters wage upon it, however indirectly and immaturely, is a battle worth championing, even if God Bless America goes about staging this battle in the wrong way. Bottom line, God Bless America is a film that poses large socio-cultural questions to an audience eager to grapple with them, presenting its characters as the victims of a way of living and treating other people that has failed them, causing violence and mayhem to erupt in their wake. Even if Frank is no Travis Bickle, and Roxy is a poor adolescent imitation of Bonnie Parker, Goldthwait’s utilization of these two characters is handled with enough finesse and comedy to render them immediately relatable, making their plight over the course of the film forgivable and understandable.

God Bless America is availble on Netflix Instant View, and is My Movies on Netflix: Recommendation of the Week.

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