According to Bobcat Goldthwait, American culture has grown too vicious, too mean, too unfeeling, too rude, and too self-serving for its own good. Frankly, I can’t say that I strictly disagree with him, but that doesn’t make me accept any more readily the thesis of his fifth film, God Bless America, which may be the most intentionally odious picture I’ve watched all year. Tired of the obnoxious and boorish qualities of modern popular consumer culture? Arm yourself and gun down the bigots, hate-mongers, and morons clogging up your television and radio airwaves. Goldthwait’s being cheeky, of course– at least at first– but he’s also in the throes of a blind, murderous outrage which he has no control over. His film is influenced accordingly.
I don’t blame Goldthwait or his hero, Frank (Mad Men‘s Joel Murray), for their anger. Frank in particular has been given a raw deal; he lives alone, separated from his wife and their daughter (who doesn’t care for him), his neighbors are jerks, he’s working a dead end job from which he gets fired in the first twenty minutes of the movie, and he has an inoperable brain tumor. Lacking friends or family, Frank’s only real connection to the world is his TV, which spews nothing but hate-filled garbage meant to endlessly cater to the lowest common denominator. So, with nothing in his life that makes it worth living and pure disappointment and aggravation as his only companions, Frank does what any sane person would do: he goes on a shooting spree.
Really, it starts off as a single murder (he shoots a teenage reality star in the head after failing to blow up her car), but escalates into a trigger-happy parade of misguided vigilante justice when Frank meets Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), a young woman who shares all of Frank’s frustrations and none of his maturity or (relative) restraint. Roxy wants to kill anybody who annoys her or who she doesn’t like (including Diablo Cody, who Goldthwait clearly dislikes or secretly has a fetish for); Frank just wants to kill people who aren’t nice, because that’s logical and sensible and not at all self-contradictory.
Truthfully, I don’t even know if I mind Frank’s hypocrisy so much as I mind the fact that he’s the source of his own ennui, but then I don’t much care to listen to people kvetch about how terrible television programming is these days. If the noise machine of pop culture is getting to you, turn off the TV. Put on NPR instead of shock radio. In other words, I’d feel more sympathetic for Frank except that he willingly exposes himself to crap on a regular basis. There’s not much he can do about his job or his health or the fact that his daughter is spoiled and his ex-wife is indifferent, but that doesn’t mean I empathize with his soliloquies on accepting personal responsibility when he can’t help but watch the latest “shocking” reality TV shows, or listen to wannabe-edgy DJs on the radio as he drives to work in the morning. No, turning off your devices doesn’t make this stuff go away, but it does keep you from having to suffer through it.
So I’m not sure why I’m supposed to think well of Frank or sympathize with his quest. He’s nearly as bad as the people he guns down in movie theaters, the fundamentalists he murders for protesting at American soldiers’ funerals, the pervert he strangles at a motel. If anything, Goldthwait seems to be banking on both the chance that we’re as fed up with the bullheaded stupidity and ignorance that he believes defines so much of American media culture, and the slim hope that we’re all in the market for two hours of watching people we don’t like get blown away in bloody slow-mo sequences that might make Sam Peckinpah proud. Maybe that’s all part of his experiment, of course, but his intentions are toxic regardless– which is a shame, because that first half hour sets up a much stronger movie about a man buckling under the pressure of his life and picking pop culture as his scapegoat.
But that arc never plays to a satisfying resolution because Frank never has a moment of cathartic introspection. There’s nothing wrong with him or the trail of corpses he’s left strewn all about the country; it’s everyone else’s fault. That’s pleasing in the basest, most childish sense possible and in the end, God Bless America just adds to the caterwauling it rails so hard against. To Goldthwait’s credit, his craft as a filmmaker has improved exponentially from his last film, 2009’s outstanding, satiric, dark, and bitter comedy World’s Greatest Dad; the guy knows his way around a camera and has a strong sense of composition. If he continues to get better as a filmmaker, he could end up being positioned as one of the country’s best counter-cultural directors, but God Bless America won’t be the movie that vaults him into a new class of cinematic excellence.