Monday, April 16, 2012

Bobcat Goldthwait, Of All People, Creates A Perfect Movie With God Bless America

The Good: Dialogue, Themes, Acting, Direction, Everything
The Bad: Nothing. Honestly.
The Basics: God Bless America is an engaging, disturbing and hilarious deconstruction of United States culture focusing on one man who has had enough . . .

It is hard these days to surprise me, at least when it comes to films. Satires and social commentary films seldom hit their mark with me and my wife suggests that it is because I am becoming an old crank. One of the last social commentaries I actually was truly thrilled by when I saw it was the opening teaser to Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip (reviewed here!). If you have no idea what I am talking about, it is not really a surprise. Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip was an Aaron Sorkin television show that made its debut the same season as 30 Rock did with essentially the same plot and a lot more politics. The pilot episode opens, however, with the show’s longtime executive producer interrupting a sketch to rant about the current state of politics, television and the media before he is fired and the sketch comedy show which he oversaw is retooled. But that monologue . . . it is the stuff dreams are made of. Bobcat Goldthwaith shares, extends and develops that dream with God Bless America.

Bobcat Goldthwait?! Bobcat Goldthwait?! Like Bobcat Goldthwait from the Police Academy movies? No, not “like,” exactly that Bobcat Goldthwait. With God Bless America, he manages to do what exceptionally few writers and directors manages to do: he creates an enduring, entertaining and surprisingly deep film that holds up exceptionally well, even over multiple viewings. With God Bless America Bobcat Goldthwait, yes the one and only Bobcat Goldthwait makes a perfect film.

God Bless America is like the opening monologue to the pilot episode of Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, blended with American Dreamz (reviewed here!) and distilled into a clever, tight and ultimately entertaining character study. It is also one of those few movies that even though the ultimate resolution to the film was entirely predictable, the journey there is entirely worthwhile and fully engaging. Bobcat Goldthwait, as a writer and director, illustrates a sharp mind, keen debating skills and an actual wit that makes the occasionally gory God Bless America never unpleasant to watch.

In other words, while God Bless America is not for the faint of heart, it is never gruesome, oppressive or unpleasant outside the way it truly deconstructs the most disturbing aspects of United States society and culture. The film is “R” and for good reason and the people who need to watch it most are adults, so it is appropriately rated.

Following his divorce, Frank is forced to live in an apartment in Syracuse, New York, with paper-thin walls through which he can hear his neighbors’ baby crying and their inane conversations. He fantasizes about breaking into their apartment, shooting the obnoxious man who blocks his car in each morning and blowing away their screaming baby. The day he is fired from his job at the insurance company because a secretary he befriended took his friendly gesture the wrong way, Frank finds himself truly distraught. Frank is diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor and wants nothing more than to reconnect with his daughter. Watching an obnoxious reality show television star scream because she is not getting everything she wants while listening to his own daughter have a similar conversation on the phone to him, Frank finally loses it. Stealing his neighbor’s car and taking his gun, Frank heads South to kill the reality television star, Chloe.

As Frank waits for Chloe, he encounters Roxy, a 16 year-old outsider who thinks he is a random pervert. However, after he kills Chloe, Roxy finds Frank in his motel room and is excited about how Frank took out the spoiled brat. Roxy talks Frank out of killing himself and the two talk about all that is wrong in the world, culminating in them killing Chloe’s parents for raising such a terrible human being. Following that, the pair goes on the road, meting out a strange sense of justice against people who are mean. While Frank’s head continues to throb, he becomes more frustrated at how the weakest in society are held up for ridicule, especially through conservative hate-baiting media and the popular American Superstarz television show. But two truths will shake Frank and pull his killing spree with Roxy in unexpected directions . . .

God Bless America is a black comedy, a satire, that is both very funny and a sharp expose on what is wrong in United States culture. What is truly genius about the film is that it manages to accomplish all that it does without ever oversimplifying the problems and characters or becoming the very thing it rails against. For the first aspect, God Bless America is rich in way it looks at all aspects of American culture. Writer and director Bobcat Goldthwait calls out reality television, hate-mongering Conservative media, and – perhaps too briefly – religious hypocrisy whereby those supposedly believing in love and forgiveness rage with the most venom. And while Frank and Roxy put bullets into many of the worst offenders, it does not suddenly change the world. I like that detail. Goldthwait does not make the oversimplified argument that simply killing these antagonists will fix all of American culture, but he does create a story where the hypocrites, entitled and hate-mongers are called out. And it is gratifying watching those who have no regard for other people take a bullet to the head.

What also truly works is that Frank and Roxy use their sudden empowerment and guns with a sense of real restraint and some people they encounter it respond positively. Following the pair shooting four people in a movie theater, the one person they did not kill in the screening tells the news that the killers just wanted people to stop talking, texting and being rude while watching the film. So, while the media still has the problem of trying to attribute a ridiculous motive – violence in the movie on the Vietnam war and the effects of war that was playing where the murders occurred – some people (like the audience) clearly get what is going on in Frank’s head and can actually appreciate what he and Roxy are doing.

The characters are brilliant and fun to watch in God Bless America. Frank is engaging, both from his daydreams of killing to his simple, generally cheerful demeanor. It is clear Frank wants to be happy, he just finds himself trapped in a world very much outside his control. He does something nice and thoughtful – sending a coworker flowers because she is complaining she is having a bad day – and he gets fired. He is diagnosed with a brain tumor by a doctor who does not actually care or empathize with him. Frank, ultimately, gets outraged because the youth of the nation come together to ridicule Steve Clark, an American Superstarz applicant whose audition suggests that he is mentally retarded and launches him into superstardom much like William Hung enjoyed.

And Frank is, believe it or not, deeply moral. He does not want to kill just anyone, he just wants people to be nicer to one another. He establishes firm boundaries with Roxy and refuses to objectify her and goes out of his way to avoid physical contact with her. But even when such things change and evolve over the course of God Bless America, Bobcat Goldthwaith is smart enough to keep Frank morally absolute in several important ways. So, after much of the movie where Frank is clearly uncomfortable by the proximity of Roxy, he finally allows her to touch him. With his migraine headaches getting worse and worse and medicine no longer having any effect, Frank lets Roxy rub the pressure point on his hand that, surprisingly enough, helps relieve the pain. The film, however, does not degenerate into anything more lascivious than that; as soon as the pain fades, Frank withdraws and he and Roxy never develop any sort of romantic entanglement . . . which, as Frank points out very early in the film, would be disgusting.

And that is the real success of God Bless America. Early on in God Bless America, Frank complains about how children are fetishized and viewed in a sexual manner and how he is not a pedophile and how gross he finds that practice. It might seem like Frank is boxed in, that Bobcat Goldthwait has created an absolutist protagonist who has nowhere he can truly develop . . . unless he goes in the predictable direction which would ultimately make him into the thing he hates. But Goldthwait manages to find a new direction, one that allows Frank to develop without ever betraying his core beliefs, Roxy, or the audience.

And for as much credit as Goldthwait deserves for the writing and directing, it is Joel Murray who ultimately lands it. Murray does it with his final line to Roxy and it is what seals the movie as truly, undeniably, great. Joel Murray is such a fabulous actor in God Bless America that I had no idea he was the same performer who played the buffoon sidekick to Greg on Dharma And Greg. He is so divorced from the goofy, idiotic character that is arguably what he is best known for that he completely redefines himself in God Bless America. And when he says the final line his character speaks to Roxy, he delivers it in such a way that through the sheer force of his eyes and the way he performs the simple line that he is saying it to her in a parental way, not a romantic one. Joel Murray takes a line that, on the page, could be interpreted many different ways and makes it conform to the character of Frank to deliver as one of the most loving, parental-type lines in all of cinema in a way that cannot be denied or misconstrued as creepy or romantic and it is Murray who absolutely lands the film.

To get Murray, Frank and God Bless America where they are going would not have been possible without Tara Lynne Barr. Barr defies the old adage about not working with children or animals in film as she appears on screen as both a disturbingly mature sixteen year-old and a frighteningly childish girl with enthusiasm and anger. Barr sells the role completely by eagerly delivering some of the movie’s most disturbing lines and also playing Roxy as genuinely outside the social norms. When her character lies, the audience believes her as much as Frank does. She plays vulnerable, without ever being kittenish and in one of the film’s most subtle commentaries, Barr as Roxy responds to Frank’s setting boundaries, which is what most of the film’s antagonists lack, making them into horrible people.

God Bless America is now available as a digital download and it will be theatrically released in May 2012. So far, it is the best film of the year, hands down, by far. You owe it to yourself, you owe it to America, to see it.

For other satires that involve protagonists having what could be viewed as a mid-life crisis, be sure to check out my reviews of:
American Beauty
Yes Man
Thank You For Smoking


For other film reviews, please be sure to visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the films I have reviewed!

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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