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Mad as hell and carrying a lot of ammo: “God Bless America”

July 14, 2012

Like a screeching-voiced U-Boat (the Nazis had them, look it up), Bobcat Goldthwait has spent the past decade or so unleashing broadsides at contemporary America in a series of low-profile, but well-meaning and sincerely-made black comedies. Sleeping Dogs Lie was a thorny exploration of the role of honesty in a relationship, while World’s Greatest Dad was an unflinching look at a father who capitalizes on the pat hypocrisy that meets his son’s death to realize his own dreams. With God Bless America, he unleashes his angriest film ever, creating an avenging avatar who challenges a culture Goldthwait sees as being giddily and irrevocably debased. It’s a little like Idiocracy, only with a lot more violent deaths and that dude from Mad Men.

In God Bless America, Joel Murray (aka Freddie Rumsen aka the dude who hooked Peggy up with the sweet gig that tempted her away from Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce) plays Frank, who pretty much embodies the term “sad sack.”  Divorced, disregarded by his newly-engaged ex-wife, and disdained by his daughter, Frank has the lank hair and the thick middle of a guy who’s been middle-aged since he was 26. Stuck in a depressing garden apartment, where he shares a thin wall with loud neighbors and their squalling baby, Frank’s days are spent on the couch, marinating in the sewage of trash-TV. Battling migraines, Frank channel-surfs desperately looking for an oasis away from the sheer vitriol that his cable service pipes in.

His life goes from bad to tragic when, in the course of a day, he loses his job when a well-meaning gesture of kindness is classified by HR as harassment, and then is diagnosed with terminal brain cancer (by a doctor who takes a cel phone call about his new car during their appointment). Like many a movie cancer-victim before him, Frank takes his death sentence as an opportunity to live his final days to their fullest. In Frank’s case, this means stealing his neighbor’s car and hunting down am odious reality-TV star—a spoiled, materialistic teenage girl, whom Frank sees his daughter morphing into. The murder goes hilariously wrong, but in the process he meets Roxy (Tara Lynn Barr), a teenager as angry at the world as he is.

Now, Frank is not a monster. He has no intention of involving Roxy in his cultural Kamikaze-run, but when she kills someone in Frank’s second awry attack, well, in for a penny…Anyway, the two end up on a Charles Starkweather/Caril Ann Fugate-style road trip (though, they fancy themselves Bonnie and Clyde), doling out rough justice to a series of high-profile miscreants they regard as destroying the culture.

Now, many of Frank’s targets are fairly broad examples of the worst of our culture, and Goldthwait’s skewering of them is basically as easy as hitting the broad side of a barn. Still, that doesn’t mean it’s not a barn worth shooting up. A fundamentalist group (based on the Westboro Baptist Church) disrupting military funerals to push an anti-gay agenda is certainly worth shooting up (and their pastor being run over and then thrown off a cliff). But some of Frank’s targets a wee bit more troubling, such as when he shoots a guy for double-parking, or when he and Roxy basically slaughter a group of obnoxious teens who keep disrupting a movie they’re watching. Still, you know, you can kinda see Frank’s side of it.

There’s not a whole lot of ambiguity to Goldthwait’s message—this movie is a screed, not an analysis. Consequently, we get the requisite dickish Fox News pundit, and a Tea Party activist (who seems more like a 1-percenter than a middle-American Tea Party nutjob). Possibly, the most baffling choice Goldthwait makes is using a William Hung-style contestant on a thinly-veiled American Idol show as his galvanizing cause. This was hardly a mark of society’s decline, and Idol is hardly a showcase for freaks and losers—particularly compared to most of the programming on E! and VH1, in which any brain-dead case with an abrasive personality merits their own reality TV show.

Still, Goldthwait puts his money where his mouth is in a lot of little ways throughout the film. The inappropriate nature of a man in his 40s paired with a teenage girl is dealt with early and often, and its’ easy to see that Roxy is Frank’s surrogate daughter. Their scenes together have a parental sweetness, and Frank is quick to affirm the boundaries he has to maintain for decency’s sake. This, Goldthwait seems to assert is how normal human beings act. Even Frank’s confrontation of one target is more than anything a baffled inquiry, “Why you gotta be so mean?” he asks over and over, as if genuinely trying to understand how a human being can not understand the basic concept of consideration.  In one of the movie’s most subversive–and potentially-inflammatory—touches, the movie being disrupted by the obnoxious teens is a documentary about the My Lai massacre. While the kids hoot and holler and jabber on the cel phone, we hear soldiers discussing their experience of dehumanization as the social norms they clung to were cast away. You see where he is going with that.

In the pilot episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Judd Hirsch has an on-camera meltdown, in which he accuses the Internet of making us meaner as a culture. Goldthwait has the same notion. However, where Aaron Sorkin uses this revelation to show what wonderful humanists his characters are, and how they can change the world, Goldthwait sees it as a windmill to be attacked by a .45-toting Don Quixote. Basic decency will not save society from its basest elements that are dragging it down, he argues. For that you need John Browning-designed pistols and maybe a Kalashnikov. Goldthwait’s version is more fun.

God Bless America is a funny, angry, cathartic film. Like most of Goldthwait’s movies it’s not an easy one, but it’s fun. It’s rare enough to find a comedy that has an agenda beyond fart humor, let alone one with a burning message, and that alone makes GBA worthwhile. Plus, any movie that features a fantasy sequence of a crying baby being blasted like skeet can be all bad, right? I’m not alone on this, right? Right?

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