[God Bless America
Written & Directed by Bobcat Goldthwait
Starring: Joel Murray and Tara Lynne Barr
MPAA: R – For Strong Violence and Language, Including Some Sexual Sequences]
Remember when I said in my Hunger Games review that the dystopian sci-fi film was an incredibly important genre because of how it can critique society in bold ways? Well, the only other genre that I can think of that is even more important would have to be the satire. Satires, much like dystopian fantasy and sci-fi, are able to give strong statements about society and the culture we live in in direct and insightful ways. Sometimes, much like dystopian films, they can even predict the future, 1984 style. Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, for example, accurately seemed to predict where the state of mass media journalism would be heading; and with tabloids and gossip magazines lining up the racks in supermarkets, it’s arguably more relevant today than it was more than 60 years ago.
One of my favorite satires is Peter Berg’s The Truman Show, which–much like Ace in the Hole–seemed to accurately depict a society fixated by reality television in an age where reality television wasn’t even that big of a thing. I rewatched it months ago as part of a school project, and it left me thinking: Now that reality television is a huge thing thing…why hasn’t anyone really done a satire of it and updated the material for modern times?
Well, I got more than I asked for. I’ll tell you that.
God Bless America isn’t just a satire on how reality television can damage a society; it’s a brazing middle finger to absolutely everything that is wrong with pop culture today. Not just reality television; but right-wing fear mongerers, religious nut-cases in the vein of the Westboro Baptist Church, spoiled teenagers and their equally terrible parents, people who talk at the movie theater, and more are all given a bullet in the face by two gun-crazy partners in crime that have had it with the rotten state of American pop culture and wish to teach every idiot that still breathes a lesson.
Now I dunno about you, but the second I heard this premise, I started getting giddy with anticipation. A dark satire that basically takes everything that is wrong with our culture and gives them the beatdown they deserve? And it’s being directed by the same man that gave us the masterful dark comedy World’s Greatest Dad? Holy shit, this is a movie that we need! This could finally be this generation’s Truman Show or Fight Club! I mean, the only way this could go wrong would be if it somehow got incredibly preachy and repetitive and ran out of original ideas within its first half hour and it becomes the very thing that it’s trying to parody as it desperately attempts to pander to its demographic of similarly-minded people so hard that you can almost hear Goldthwait behind the camera straining with the effort to fully realize his masturbatory wish-fulfillment…oh, god damnit.
Here’s a basic rundown of the premise: Frank (Joel Murray) is a lonely schlub who is divorced, trapped in a white-collar nightmare job with the douchiest co-workers, and possibly terminally ill. When he discovers that he has a brain tumor, he decides to off himself with a bullet in the mouth. But then…something happens. As he’s ready to pull the trigger and end his sad life, he starts viewing what’s basically the movie’s own version of MTV’s Sweet 16, depicting a spoiled white rich girl whining to her parents that she didn’t get the Escalade that she oh-so desperately wanted for her birthday. It is at that moment that Frank realizes that he isn’t the one that deserves to die: It’s all those assholes who do. So he decides to go on a killing spree across America along with a psychotic, young teenage sidekick Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr) to get rid of all the reality stars, Tea-Party protesters, Westboro Baptist Church members, and right-wing fear mongerers of the world.
This material is absolutely ripe for a dark satire. All it needs now is good execution.
Here’s the sad dilemma I’m having with this film: I agree with so many of the points that God Bless America is trying to make. It is filled with a few individual scenes that absolutely, positively work. These scenes have authenticity and truth and they bring up a lot of great criticisms about the state of American culture. That being said, God Bless America is currently my contender for the worst movie of 2012 thus far. Because the other 97% of the film is just preachy, pandering bullshit with no arc or development and absolutely zero actual insight into the very subjects its skewering.
It essentially reminded me of the James Gunn film Super, which has a somewhat similar premise, except if you replaced the crazy gun man with a crazy man who thinks he’s a superhero and pop culture with crime. Super was a film I had a lot of problems with, but I will give it this much: It at the very least new just how absolutely batshit its main characters were and painted them in the appropriate light. The two main characters of God Bless America on the other hand, are painted as full-on protagonists. They aren’t even antiheroes. Because of this, the film lacks the bite that a dark comedy such as this needs. Because the filmmakers fully expect you to be cheering for everything Frank and Roxy do, the film ultimately never explores the fact that what they’re doing is actually pretty fucked up, even if their intentions are good.
It’s weird, because Bobcat Goldthwait has proven in World’s Greatest Dad that he can create incredibly dark comedy with absolutely terrible characters that you can sympathize with at certain moments. In World’s Greatest Dad, Goldthwait was fully aware of just how screwed up Robin Williams’s character’s actions were, and brought some insight into how those actions can lead a man further down a rabbit hole of lies. This leads to another problem with God Bless America: There is no insight because there is no arc.
The movie opens with Frank going off on a monologue about how rude and inconsiderate his next door neighbors are, and proceeds to imagine a fantasy scenario that is honestly incredibly shocking, a little funny in a skewed sense, but still kind of repulsive all at once. After this he goes to work, having to deal with his douchey co-workers who think he’s a Godless-liberal for not liking the same stuff or agreeing with the same politics as them. It is here that he goes off on a very well-written and acted speech about how our civilization has become completely uncivilized.
Now this is a scene that rings true. Is it preachy? Yes. Is it correct? Absolutely. This is a great jumping-off point for the movie to begin its arc. We get Frank is mad, we understand why he’s mad, we agree that what he’s mad about deserves to be gotten rid of; now all the movie has to do is develop him, give him nuance, insight on how a man could…oh wait, never mind. Instead the movie is just going to throw around more and more speeches about everything that sucks about American culture and do absolutely nothing else.
The result is a repetitious film that is essentially just a segment of “Grinds My Gears” stretched ad nauseum. There is absolutely no sense of flow or pacing or development as Frank and Roxy go on their rampage across America to off the next douchebag in their sights. The whole film is essentially just Bobcat Goldthwait directly telling the audience all the things that piss him off and how much you should be pissed off by these things too. Frank goes on with speech after speech after speech after speech after speech, but he doesn’t learn anything or grow as a character. And the same goes for his sidekick Roxy…
Speaking of which, remember when I reviewed Super on the podcast and discussed how Ellen Page’s character felt unrealistically psychotic, and how it came out of nowhere and really went over-the-top? I take it back. I take it all back. Because Tara Lynne Barr’s depiction of Roxy makes Ellen Page in Super seem civil by comparison. Her character makes absolutely no sense, has no purpose of even being in the movie, and just completely takes you out of the experience. Her sole purpose is just to give Frank someone to talk to just so he can go off on YET ANOTHER GOD DAMN SPEECH. You know the show-don’t-tell rule? This is the absolute nadir of breaking that rule.
If there’s one thing that works about the movie, it’s the performances. Joel Murray does the best that he can do with the weak, preachy script; and there are even some moments where you feel a ton of sympathy for him, especially in the scene near the beginning where he ponders suicide. Tara Lynne Barr, despite having to play a terribly written and morally reprehensible character, is charming on her own. The two of them play off of each other surprisingly well, and have some playful banter that can be amusing at moments. But it still isn’t enough to distract you from three of my biggest problems with the film:
The first is that all of the parodies and skewerings of pop culture that they encounter are excessively broad. While the movie is attempting to skewer the real problems of today’s pop culture, it seems to take place in some fantasy world where everyone other than the main characters seem to be douchebags, hicks, bigots, you get the idea. Usually, broad generalization is fine for comedy and satire; except that all of the things that Goldthwait is skewering are already absolutely ridiculous and ludicrous in their own right. It’s practically redundant to make a parody of Jersey Shore, when Jersey Shore is already a parody of itself. I mean, I get it when he’s attempting to show us all of the television channels he’s flipping through, but when it gets to the point where his daughter starts crying to him because mom got her a Blackberry when she wanted an iPhone, it gets cartoonish. And being cartoonish usually isn’t a bad thing, but for this subject matter, if Goldthwait really wanted to get into the nitty gritty of American pop culture, he wouldn’t have had to change a thing. Because of this, a lot of the movie just feels completely false.
Secondly, this is a movie that is trying way too hard. It gets to a point where it feels like Bobcat Goldthwait is less concerned with genuinely trying to engage the viewer with his message, and it starts to feel more like he’s pandering to the demographic that would most likely agree with his statements. This demographic includes me, to a certain extent. Like I said, I agree with many of the individual points he brings up. But the reason why I do so much is because Bobcat is directly pandering to me. Unfortunately, I can tell when a filmmaker is bending over backwards to please its audience.
I wouldn’t say that it’s forced, because I have a feeling that Bobcat has genuine feelings for this subject, understandably so. But he gets so passionate about it that his film ends up having all of the sophistication and nuance of a comments section on a YouTube video of Justin Bieber: It’s just filled with a bunch of people talking about how “everything today sucks”. It feels juvenile, like when you’re a teenager and you get into that phase where you all you talk about on the internet is how much the Jonas Brothers or Justin Bieber or whoever’s the famous teenybopping icon at the moment absolutely sucks without realizing that you can just ignore it and it doesn’t have to bother you and every facet of your life (I’ll admit that I went into that phase for a brief period while the Jonas Brothers were the big thing. As much as I look back at how stupidly angsty I was, I realize it was for the better since it wouldn’t have led to me becoming more mature than that).
But the biggest problem of all would have to be just this simple fact: God Bless America is terrible at satire. As the film starts offing each celebrity one by one, the movie never asks the question of whether or not Frank and Roxy have become bigger monsters than the very people that they’re senselessly killing. Frank’s whole message throughout the entire film is just “Why do you have to be so mean?”, but isn’t locking a bratty teenager into a car and attempting to put a burning handkerchief in the gas valve just as if not more cruel and mean-spirited? It’s fine for a movie to have this sort of depravity, only as long as it has the responsibility to point the criticism at itself just as much as it does at all the Snookis, Kardashians, and Fred Phelpses of the world.
You wanna know what makes Fight Club not only one of my favorite movies of all time but also a great satire in general? It points its criticisms inward just as much as it does out. We get the appeal of Tyler Durden’s organization, and we can sympathize with why all of Fight Club’s members feel the way they do. But when things go to far, the film has the responsibility to look at itself and see how a good idea can grow out of control instantaneously. If God Bless America were truly smart, it would’ve seen that Frank and Roxy had become the very thing they set out to destroy. But instead, by treating them as heroes as the final moments roll around, it’s the movie that becomes the very thing that it set out to parody. It becomes just pandering to the crowd, albeit not a mainstream crowd, but there is definitely an audience for this film. It just becomes a bunch of “edgy” and “extreme” nonsense, in the same way (but through different means) that an MTV show like Jackass is a bunch of edgy and extreme nonsense.
The result is a film that has no idea how to convey what it’s trying to say or the moral implications of its story. It sets up a clear doctrine and doesn’t stop to look at how it could go wrong easily. My parents love American Idol. According to the movie, I should shoot them along with the rest of the “masses that feed into that garbage” or whatever crap its trying to say (And I loathe American Idol). Indeed watching a teenage girl mowing down Westboro Baptist Church members with her pistol is fun on a purely visceral level of wish-fulfillment fantasy, but does that mean that I encourage or endorse actually doing it, even if those people are absolutely terrible and if they were killed in such a manner, I wouldn’t even miss or sympathize with them? What it all boils down to is this…
Final Verdict: God Bless America is the worst sort of movie. It’s a genuinely clever idea that’s worthy of having a real good movie made of, and instead it’s absolutely wasted on a horrendously static screenplay and confused direction. While the central performances are nice, it isn’t enough to save God Bless America from being poorly written, poorly directed, and absolutely misguided in its themes and morals. A bad, bad movie, regardless of how much I agree that the world would be better without Kim Kardashian.
That is all. If you liked this review and would like to read more, you can do so by reading more reviews on this blog as well as following me on the Twitter-machine @Enigma6667 to hear more of my general ramblings on film, video games, and other such things. By following me, you not only get an endless stream of updates on what’s going on with my articles, you get to stroke my massive ego in the process. Do at your own risk.
See ya next time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to rip off of Taxi Driver some more. Bye!