There are essentially two Bobcat Goldthwaits: The first exists mainly in the past, a screeching, howling stand-up comedian mainly known for playing Zed in a string of “Police Academy” films in the eighties. In recent years, a quieter, surprisingly introspective Goldthwait has funneled much of his onstage energy into filmmaking and emerged as one of the more entertainingly provocative American directors working today. Goldthwait initially showed potential as a filmmaker with the cult hit “Shakes the Clown” in the early nineties, but it wasn’t until 2006, with his microbudget comedy “Sleeping Dogs Lie,” that he truly found his cinematic voice.
Like Goldthwait’s vintage routines at the mic, the movies are simultaneously crass and insightful, charged by subversive twists but sneakily loaded with Goldthwait’s life philosophies. But Goldthwait hasn’t merely translated his comedic approach to screenwriting endeavors; behind the camera, he has demonstrated an attentiveness to film form, experimenting with a variety of camera styles and lively montages to take his raucous perspective beyond the constraints of a typical stand-up routine. In short, he makes movies, not sketches.
Each of Goldthwait’s directorial efforts revolves around solitary characters with secrets and madness locked inside their psyches. “Shakes” is a lunatic clown; in “Sleeping Dogs Lie,” a woman struggles to conceal a startling sex act from her college past; “Windy City Heat” studies a mentally unstable character as if it were a documentary; “World’s Greatest Dad” follows a man exploiting his son’s suicide for personal gain; and “God Bless America,” opening in theaters this Friday and currently available on VOD, finds a man driven to murderous extremes by the vapidity of reality television. In Goldthwait’s world, only the lunatics see the light.
“Shakes the Clown” (1991)
Goldthwait’s initial feature-length endeavor arrived when he was still in the thick of his eighties fame, but displayed his visible disenchantment with his status as a celebrity entertainer. In the lead role as Shakes, Goldthwait inhabits a creepy universe of clown gangs and organized crime. An endlessly sloven alcoholic, Shakes battles to get his act together (literally and figuratively) while dealing with competition. As his life careens out of control — not that it had much control in the first place — Shakes goes undercover as a mine when a rival sets him up for murder. “Serpico” by way of Fellini, “Shakes” eventually gained the admiration of Martin Scorsese and became the first hint of Goldthwait’s new career direction.
“Windy City Heat” (2003)
Goldthwait directed this “documentary” for Comedy Central about a goofy naif named Perry Caravello tricked by various scheming cohorts into thinking that he has been cast in the titular crime drama. The movie follows Caravello as he falls deeper and deeper into an absurdist prank. To this day, those who view “Windy City Heat” take a skeptical approach: Is Caravello really so clueless as to not realize — over the course of a decade, apparently — that he lacks any thespian talents? It actually doesn’t matter. Goldthwait, appearing as himself in the film, revisits some of the ideas initially explored in “Shakes” by calling foul on the entire institution of the entertainment industry. Satire or the real deal, it’s an incredibly wry commentary.
“Sleeping Dogs Lie” (2006)
Goldthwait’s first attempt at working within conventional low budget constraints finally completed his transition from stand-up comedian to filmmaker. As the opening voiceover reveals, Melinda Page Hamilton plays a woman still plagued by a whimsical decision in college to perform her fellatio on her dog. That’s enough to make “Sleeping Dogs Lie” stand out on the page and scare off squeamish audiences (although Goldthwait leaves plenty up to the imagination). However, the movie’s brilliance lies in Goldthwait’s willingness to run with the premise and — yes, really — transform it into a legitimate relationship drama. The underlying question of whether or not couples should keep secrets from each other takes the movie beyond its introductory gross-out gag by making its characters oddly relatable. The scene in which his conflicted protagonist finally unloads her secret is a terrific actor-director synthesis that defines the essence of cringe comedy in a nutshell.
“World’s Greatest Dad” (2009)
Goldthwait’s next effort as writer-director brought him a larger budget and star power in the form of his pal Robin Williams. As struggling writer and depressed high school teacher Lance, Williams landed his most audacious role in years, mainly because he was sustained by such a discomfiting scenario: When Lance’s obnoxious son accidentally kills himself while masturbating, Lance fakes the late teen’s suicide note and turns him into a posthumous celebrity. The teacher runs with his trick as far as he can before facing the shadow of immorality chasing him at every turn. Although technically a very black comedy, “World’s Greatest Dad” never loses its disarmingly light touch, a paradox at the root of the movie’s appeal. Goldthwait once again wrestles with the problematic drive for fame and the way it can hinder one’s perception of reality, then lets it all crash down in a memorable slo-mo sequence that finds Williams in his birthday suit — Goldthwait’s visual cue that the self-made emperor has no clothes.
“God Bless America” (2011)
The filmmaker’s disdain for America’s narcissistic culture reaches a fever pitch with this lively “Bonnie and Clyde” update that finds Joel Murray playing a disgruntled office drone eventually driven to kill off reality television stars with the assistance of an equally batty 16-year-old girl (Tara Lynne Barr). Goldthwait writes some of his best monologues in years for his loony leading man, but while “God Bless America” rants about society’s downward slide into a media-fueled oblivion — it’s Goldthwait’s “Idiocracy” — the movie also serves as a bold indictment of pop culture’s destructive potential, and a catharsis for anyone willing to confess that beneath the Murray character’s blatantly psychotic beavhior, his targets are spot-on.