GOD BLESS AMERICA: A Very Violent Film About Kindness
“We’ve become a nation of slogan-saying, bile-spewing hatemongers! We’ve lost our kindness! We’ve lost our soul!”
In his climactic rant near the end of the fire-breathing comic satire, God Bless America, Frank serves as a mouthpiece for the film’s writer and director, Bobcat Goldthwait. And much like the film itself, Frank’s unhinged fury strikes a chord.
Frank — played by Joel Murray with a sullen deadpan to rival that of his brother, Bill — is the middle-age version of the cootie-carrying social awkward you shunned in school. Slumped on his lonely couch, remote in hand, Frank seethes quietly at the steep descent of American popular culture into a cesspool of ill-mannered shows that degrade and trivialize their participants. Frank’s steam rises as he channel-surfs through dead-on parodies of My Super Sweet 16; Jackass; angry right-wing pundits; and all manner of toxic, bottom-feeding television culture.
Frank’s personal life is as messed up as the culture he despises. He is divorced from a wife whose indulgent parenting has turned their daughter into a hysteric brat. Frank gets fired from a drearily generic office job for “harassing” the office receptionist because he sent flowers to her home on a day she was out sick. To make matters worse, a callously indifferent doctor diagnoses Frank’s migraines as being caused by terminal brain cancer.
After contemplating suicide, Frank decides to turn his self-loathing outward and vent his misanthropy behind his gun barrel. His first victim, Chloe (Maddie Hasson), is the monstrous teenager from the My Super Sweet 16 parody that flies into a tantrum when her parents give her the wrong car for her birthday.
While prowling on Chloe’s parents’ estate, Frank is importuned by Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), a foul-mouthed teen, who watches with glee as Frank executes Chloe in her Super Sweet Lexus. After some initial verbal skirmishing, Frank and Roxy become a team of natural-born killers who embark on a killing spree of all they find wrong with modern American culture. From impolite moviegoers chatting on mobile phones to reality-television show hosts, Frank and Roxy cleanse the cruelty of modern culture with showers of bullets.
Goldthwait is hardly the first filmmaker of his boomer generation to go after cultural decline by meeting fire with fire. Back in the early 1990s, John Waters did it with Serial Mom as did Joel Schumacher with Falling Down. God Bless America pales when compared to those films. Like all one-joke movies, God Bless America spins its wheels in increasingly wearisome orgies of random killing, and its blanket disgust threatens to throw out the baby with the bathwater. However, if you’ve seen any of Goldthwait’s previous work —the cult hit Sleeping Dogs Lie or the under-appreciated World’s Greatest Dad — you’ll know that Goldthwait has a unique way of putting his finger on the zeitgeist and squeezing it like a zit. In less capable hands, God Bless America would be unwatchable; however, having been filtered through Goldthwait’s exacting satire, the film squeaks by as an average comedic commentary. ‘
Through Frank, Goldthwait shows his revulsion for not just the reductive stupidity of reality television, but its escalating cruelty and incivility. Defending God Bless America at test screenings around the country, Goldthwait summed up the film as “a very violent film about kindness.” And it is that subtle, but distinct difference that saves God Bless America from becoming as trivial a cultural commentary as the immature S.F.W.
Ultimately, Goldthwait’s unwillingness to let anyone, least of all his audience, off the hook is what takes God Bless America beyond pedantic cultural satire. The film ends with a couple of tale-twisting bullet orgies designed to take your preconceptions, as well as your nerve-endings, by surprise. Frank may be a crusader for civility, but Goldthwait won’t let us forget that Frank’s cultural cleansing is a logical extension of the brutality he seeks to avenge.
Ultimately, I’m still not sure if God Bless America is a victory for decency, or a cry of despair. Regardless, it is refreshing knowing that there are some capable filmmakers who are mad as hell and can harness that rage into venomously comedic cinema.