Killing for All the Right Reasons in 'God Bless America'

Frank (Joel Murray) is an outcast. We first meet this divorced, fiftyish, glumly alcoholic white-collar worker—the protagonist of Bobcat Goldthwait's God Bless America—on one of his sleepless nights, entertaining homicidal fantasies about the couple next door. “They're incapable of comprehending that their actions affect other people,” he muses, before another night in front of the TV, staring at uncivil reality programs and energy-drink ads with the same glassy eyes that Travis Bickle once cast over American Bandstand.

In the next few days, Frank will lose his job, become completely estranged from his young daughter and be diagnosed with brain cancer. It's like a nihilistic parody of Akira Kurosawa's 1952 Ikiru, in which a fatally ill, unloved middle-age bureaucrat, played by Takashi Shimura, is forced to find meaning in what life he has left. Shimura's character exchanges a wasted life for selfless action, turning a cesspool into a public playground; Frank, however, decides to waste those responsible for the cesspool that America has become—starting with an ungrateful brat he sees on a program that's clearly based on MTV's My Super Sweet 16.

A veteran, Frank is a crack shot and quickly gains an admiring groupie in Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), a high-school classmate of his first victim, who tags along to spur Frank into a program of cleansing cross-country killing, targeting members of a Westboro Baptist Church-type group, a bullying right-wing TV host, Tea Partiers, even some nonpartisan assholes. I cannot remember an American movie that has painted such a vulgar picture of the pop-culture landscape since Idiocracy or Ghost World—the latter of which also, curiously, revolved around the mutually revitalizing relationship between a middle-age male misanthrope and a teenage female version of same, though Frank is exceedingly careful to maintain decorum with the underaged Bonnie to his Clyde. (“So we're platonic spree-killers?” she asks, disappointed.)

The brief filmography of choke-voiced standup and God Bless America writer/director Goldthwait boasts some real black comic accomplishments, including 1992's Shakes the Clown—a dirty-joke burlesque of the spiritual cost of life in the comedy industry—and 2009's World's Greatest Dad, with Robin Williams grappling over how to grieve the death of a son who hardly deserved grief.

What World's Greatest Dad found in the friction between emotional and intellectual instincts—and what God Bless America lacks—is conflict. Goldthwait's latest doesn't interrogate Frank's warped decency or his conviction that “some folks just need killing” and offers no significant reason to second-guess him at any time. The interplay between Murray and Barr is closely and carefully handled, but when the monotonous squib-popping subsides, the movie is often static and talky, lapsing into criticism-hedging qualifications and anti-everything speechifying (“Nobody talks about anything anymore; they just regurgitate everything they see on TV”). From the film's blinkered POV, there is no such thing as an “innocent bystander,” and no perspective is available outside of the all-enveloping disgust of Frank, Roxy and their doting creator, who absolves their crimes while serving up paper targets and irreverent soundtrack cues.

Goldthwait must understand the irony of a protagonist condemning a society in which “the weak are torn apart every week for our entertainment” and “nobody cares that they damage other people” in a movie that revels in the slaughter of the unarmed. And he must, understandably, have thought that any flinch might crack his film's deadpan. But what's less obvious is what this turkey shoot is meant to do, aside from providing a like-minded audience the vicarious cathartic thrill of watching a douchebag apocalypse—which Piranha 3D did with more élan and no self-righteousness. God Bless America adopts the scorched-earth moral certitude and guiltless body count of the “angry white male” Reagan-era action movie while turning the jingoistic politics inside-out. It's such a carefully studied parody you might think you're looking at the original.


This review did not appear in print.

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