At the movies, righteous anger is in painfully short supply these days, but writer-director Bobcat Goldthwait manages to harness all of his (and more than a little bit of ours) in “God Bless America,” a scathingly funny indictment of the vagaries of contemporary U.S. culture. Compiling an encyclopedic list of offenses unleashed upon the world through the entertainment industry, the pretense of political discourse, and the increasing indignities of human interaction, Goldthwait crafts a revenge fantasy that’s smart, specific, and imminently sympathetic, even when its characters retaliate in admittedly extreme or inappropriate ways. Desperate for a time before TMZ without purely succumbing to rose-colored nostalgia, “God Bless America” is a twisted but troublingly accurate chronicle of contemporary inhumanity, viewed through the eyes of a man no longer capable of ironic detachment.
Joel Murray (“Mad Men,” “Dharma and Greg”) plays Frank, an insurance-company employee who struggles to connect with his spoiled daughter Ava (Mackenzie Brooke Smith) even as he desperately tries to block out the rest of the world around him. Suffering from migraines, noisy neighbors and assaultive television programming at night, Frank unleashes his frustrations to nimrod coworkers from his office cubicle until he gets terminated for accessing employee files in order to send an unhappy receptionist a bouquet of flowers. But after discovering that he has simultaneously been diagnosed with a brain tumor, Frank succumbs to the onslaught of terrible behavior he sees everywhere around him and decides to assassinate a bratty teenage TV “star” named Chloe (Maddie Hanson) whose reality show documents her outrage over receiving the wrong kind of SUV for her 16th birthday.
Witnessed by Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), one of Chloe’s classmates, Frank flees the scene of the murders and awaits apprehension by the police. But after Roxy shows up and compliments him for offing the girl, the two of them go on a cross-country journey imposing social, well, if not justice, then revenge, retaliating against a world’s values they believe to be spectacularly out of whack, if they exist at all.
Although ironically the rights issues would probably make such an effort prohibitive, Goldthwait could easily have assembled one montage after the next of actual television programs and news reports to “justify” Frank’s moral outrage. But what’s initially amazing about his depiction of celebrity culture, sensationalist news reporting, and all-around terrible behavior is that he never exaggerates it – if only because he never needs to. Truth be told, it’s entirely possible that Goldthwait merely changed the names and circumstances of the people involved in real events in order to fictionalize them, but as a social satirist, he realizes that audiences need only accuracy, not parody, in order to appreciate what he (via his characters) is frustrated about. So when Frank flips the channels past reports of teenagers setting fire to homeless people and reality shows where young women throw their used tampons at each other, there’s a depressingly palpable realism to the deluge of ideas and imagery.
Moreover, it is truly a revenge fantasy – a metaphor for the exasperation and impatience of people who still maintain values like sensitivity, thought and moderation – so when Frank and Roxy start picking off teenagers in a theater for talking loudly and using their cell phones, there’s something at once satisfying by the comeuppance they deliver, and something entertainingly unreal about it. Of course, Goldthwait might be articulating a feeling he actually has to take out some of the mouth-breathers who steal two spaces in a parking lot or behave lasciviously for no apparent reason, but as someone who admittedly shares a lot of the values Frank does – such as, why can’t people be nicer to one another? – this writer didn’t see any sincere advocacy for someone to take up the character’s cause and dish out capital punishment, even against folks like the members of Westboro Baptist Church who protest at dead soldiers’ funerals.
While the film has an indisputable left-leaning sensibility –- insofar as “the truth has a liberal bias” – “God Bless America” manages to be mostly nonpartisan, although Frank and Roxy do target a Sean Hannity-Glenn Beck type, and even then their argument for killing him is, “why do you have to be so mean to people who come on your show?” Indeed, its focus is on the betrayal of simple, humanistic values, such as kindness, consideration, and personal responsibility, and it certainly offers an unflattering portrait of contemporary entertainment, that wasteland of valueless depravity. In fact, at a certain point it stops being funny, mostly because you’re either absorbed into the characters’ crusade or repulsed by it, but also because there’s simply too much truth in its story – for good or bad — to simply take it in as casual, or even purely mean-spirited entertainment.
There is of course the question of whether the film is guilty of what it’s trying to critique – satirizing violent, irresponsible behavior using characters that are themselves violent and irresponsible. But while his narrative choices don’t excuse or eliminate that complaint, Goldthwait doesn’t disallow that interpretation, channeling his story towards a finale that approaches catharsis but only arrives at melancholy self-actualization. Like Frank recognizes of the William Hung-like singer who becomes famous after auditioning for the film’s “American Idol”-like competition show, Goldthwait understands that in order for us to identify with his main character, we can’t fully pity or look down on him, which is why he’s oddly clear-headed and responsible, even within the context of his extreme reaction to stupid or inconsiderate behavior.
Having endured an exasperating conversation with someone inflexibly opposite to my political thinking immediately before watching this film, “God Bless America” was an odd and unexpected salve – a reassuring reminder that there are people who value basic human decency and consideration of others, albeit articulated through the angry voice of a person who would not accept the crude indifference of “fuck you” for an answer. Though it’s a small film, Goldthwait’s latest is a big accomplishment, and it puts him on a plane alongside some of the movies’ best satirists and social commentators, balancing humor with substantial insight and easy outrage with more difficult truth. All of which is why despite its deep-rooted disappointment in the worst humanity has to offer, what’s most special about “God Bless America” is that it’s weirdly, and honestly, an optimistic movie: although there’s so much terrible stuff out there to disappoint and demoralize us, it’s the determination to be our better selves that keeps us going, and always less because of the worry we can’t live up to that standard than the hope that we eventually will. [B+]