Former shrill-voiced comedian turned acidic writer/director/satirist Bobcat Goldthwait may just be one of the most simultaneously electric and frustrating indie filmmakers working today. When it comes to deliciously wicked and acerbic premises, there might not be a better conceptualist. A devilishly arch comedic mind, Goldthwait has thus far come up with three succulently mordant, often morally taboo narrative inventions: a girl who tries to repair her relationship after she reveals to her partner she’s engaged in sexual acts with her dog (“Sleeping Dogs Lie“); a struggling and untalented author who parlays his son’s fake suicide note into a writing career (“World’s Greatest Dad“) and his latest, “God Bless America,” a pitch black societal missive about a disenfranchised man and an all-too-willing and fed-up teenage girl who go on a cross-country killing spree aimed at the shallow, the insipid and the repellently vacuous.
All worthwhile targets, frankly. But the same issue that marred Goldthwait’s earlier efforts is present — while the richly comedic conceits are more than promising, the execution and follow-through are always lacking and clunky. And such is the case with “God Bless America,” that comes fully lock, stock and barrel loaded with an incendiary and hilariously corrosive idea, but can’t really make the most of it beyond what feels like predictable jokes with obvious, easy targets — most of them found on your TV set.
Joel Murray (one of Bill Murray‘s many siblings) stars as Frank, a disfranchised cubicle drone divorced and estranged from his ex-wife and spoiled brat/iPhone obsessed daughter. Already disgusted and offended with the “downward spiral” of America and the stupidity around him — “No one has any shame anymore!” he laments to an idiotic mouthbreather of a co-worker — Frank’s disillusionment seems to only grow each minute. And then the already loveless Frank is blindsided and shit-canned at work because the woman he believes he was consensually and harmlessly flirting with says he’s been harassing her. To stack this deck even further, this unlucky fellow is diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor.
Feeling hopeless and with nothing left to lose, Frank considers suicide, but the eureka moment of clarity comes when watching a reality TV show, witnessing an entitled teenage brat (Maddie Hasson) throw a tantrum after receiving the “wrong car” for a birthday present. Galvanized by this loathsome figure, Frank takes his pistol, steals his annoying neighbor’s hot-rod-esque car and decides to off the cruel, the mean, the insensitive and the most offensively stupid members of society. And when he decides on his first target — the aforementioned spoiled-rotten tart — he ends up crossing paths with the most unusual partner in crime, a 16-year-old named Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), who shares his sense of outrage and gleefully squeals with delight when Chloe is unceremoniously executed.
The problem doesn’t lie in the fact that Goldthwait embraces and champions these fed-up and righteous lead characters who embark upon their own kind of cultural cleansing rampage. That’s funny enough for what it is, sure, and we won’t argue that many of these nincompoops are a waste of space. The problem with “God Bless America,” is that it’s a ripe revenge fantasy concept that quickly gears into a very comfortable auto-pilot rage and goes no further than this posit: Wouldn’t it be fun to go postal for a day and just murder the shit out every rude, inconsiderate, selfish asshole that crosses your path? While the idea is dangerous and wild on the surface, even if all of its targets are rather safe and commonplace.
Yes, the Kardashians suck. Reality TV is largely sickening. US Weekly is offensive. The ease with which we mock the William Hungs of the word for our pleasure is rather detestable. We know this. But even more insulting is the idea that “God Bless America” has come to some grand revelation by spotting these amoral targets. And while not quite smug, there is a worrisome self-congratulatory tone throughout with its “heroes” as chosen ones that are better than the stupid 99%.
And so then the film practically runs down a list of jackasses; people who talk in movie theaters, jerks who take up two parking spots, obnoxiously loud cell phone talkers, etc. And in doing so the film dulls its initially razor sharp premise from taking dead aim at genuinely dangerous Fox News-like fear mongers and charlatans masquerading as patriots like Bill O’Reilly, to just going off on anyone and anything remotely irritating. While the self-satisfied film already loses its bite rather quickly, this lack of ideological focus only hurts it all the more.
Worse are some of the several, self-serving monologues. While many will fist pump along in agreement — yes! voice that frustration I’ve always felt and yet never really articulated! — each rant of Frank’s turns into a carefully concocted toxic soliloquy that essentially repeats the same maxim over and over again ad nauseum: people have no shame, society is devolving, people are getting stupider and more obnoxious, culture on a whole is becoming barren and abhorrent. It makes one want to scream: “Dude, we got this in the first 15 minutes of the film! What else do you got?!” And sadly, the ironically titled “God Bless America” (get it? America isn’t worth blessing! High five! AMIRITE!) is so self-satisfied with its caustic screed, it begins to believe it’s actually sort of incisive and revolutionary or some kind of comedic call to arms.
It’s like throwing a Molotov cocktail at the screen with no greater agenda than, “Lord, these people suck shit.” And yes, everyone in the crosshairs is generally useless and many of us would just love to terminate them all with prejudice (this writer includes himself in the bunch), but there’s a counterfeit laziness to the film’s enemies and targets that not only preaches to the choir, but has almost nothing insightful to say. And while Goldwait take aim from his moral self-satisfied moral high ground, irony abounds. Its not like a killing spree across the country is the most original idea on earth and while taking jabs at Diablo Cody and “Juno” he fails to realize the carefully fabricated (and often stilted) quippy and sassy dialogue that comes out of Roxie’s mouth isn’t that different from something Juno MacGuff might say.
Pronouncing its one-note, black and white POV, ‘God Bless’ makes things feel even more unsophisticated by never challenging its protagonists or positioning them as anything other than heroes fighting the good fight, who go as far to martyr themselves for their cause. And while still occasionally humorous amidst its lazy-boy-chair narrative, you expect much more from a film that initially sells itself as a counter-culture handgun wedged in your mouth. If you’re going to assassinate loathsome targets it might be nice if the attack was deeper than using dynamite on a barrel of fish.
Ultimately, “God Bless America” feels like it was written while watching television, and yet, it’s never as clever or incendiary as it believes itself to be. Seeing itself as the heir apparent to “Office Space,” “Network,” with maybe even some of the cultural ideas expressed in “Fight Club,” Goldthwait’s ideas are all surface and can’t hold a candle to any of those films. Frank might be mad as hell and doesn’t want to take it anymore, but Goldthwait frankly, is no Paddy Chayefsky. [C-]