My Home Sweet Home, by Patrick Felton
As the film opens, Frank, a lonely divorcee of Syracuse, NY, watches a piece of generic reality television. The camera closes in on the TV, like a menace. It quickly becomes clear Frank is suffering a migraine. Meanwhile his neighbors yell incessantly about Lindsey Lohan while their baby screams. Frank begins to flip through the channels, each one more awful than the previous, all the while the screaming next door continues. The film then engages a fantasy sequence where Frank mows down the trio, including the crying baby, with an assault rifle.
Thus begins God Bless America the 4th narrative feature from former comedian turned offbeat auteur Bobcat Goldthwait. By the 35 minute mark, an unexpected firing and a brain tumor have driven Frank to follow this fantasy to its logical next step, assassination of a reality TV star and her family. When Roxy, an outcast teenager witnesses the murder with surprising satisfaction, it sets into motion a cross-country killing spree that will create a strange bond of friendship between the two misfits.
Such an audacious start can’t be too much of a surprise to audiences familiar to Goldthwait’s. work. No stranger to pushing buttons, his previous films have dealt with alcoholic party clowns, bestiality, and autoerotic asphyxiation. These have ranged from brilliant to half-baked. Previously he had started his directorial career with the sporadically funny but wildly undisciplined Shakes The Clown in 1991. However, it wasn’t until 2009’s acerbic satire Worlds Greatest Dad that Goldthwait’s voice has come to congeal in the independent film landscape as vital.
God Bless America finds itself somewhere between these two poles, a messy, laugh out loud, unapologetically moralistic story of a crime spree with a heart of gold. God Bless America has a strong, often troubling point of view. The film manages to be both utterly reprehensible and uplifting often at the same time, challenging the audience’s assumptions about or moral code and then replacing them with a code so troubling that they are left with nothing to do but laugh. While arguably his best film, God Bless America lets half-baked rhetorical, emotional and polemic slights-of-hand to rob the film of much of its artistic merit.
In terms of visual aesthetic, God Bless America is Goldthwait’s most stylistically accomplished film yet. Goldthwait utilizes the existential loneliness of his native Syracuse to add to the sense of dread and pessimism Frank has. When the film finally gets away from Onandaga County, the visuals open up with a subversive blend of picturesque travelogue road trip footage and explicit gun violence.
At the heart of this film’s narrative is not tight plotting or creative violence. Instead the film uses the violence to puncture everything that it views is wrong with the world. The target of the violence isn’t spurned lovers, world leaders, or cops. Frank and his partner in crime, 16-year-old Roxy play by different rules. They operate by a code with implicit ties to Emmanuel Kant’s categorical imperative, (minus any level of philosophical afterthought to the basic principles of the sanctity of life). After much discussion. Frank decides to kill those that they see as being “mean” or “petty” or “thoughtless” these include people who use cellphones during movies, Fox News surrogates, Tea Party activists, and anyone else the film labels as a ‘hater.’
Within what sounds like a grindhouse premise, Goldwhait has dropped his two gentlest protagonists yet. Frank is a man defeated, deflated by his horrible existence, loneliness, divorce, cancer, and the overwhelming dread he has for interfacing with modern society. Roxy is everything he’s not: young, vital, articulate, optimistic. When their partnership of killing is formed, it is done with such sweetness that the audience may be forgiven for thinking they were going on a road trip to a beauty pageant instead of a killing spree.
Occasionally bordering on manic-pixie-dream-girl territory, Frank and Roxy’s relationship is saved by the sweet and humanistic performances of Joel Murray and Tara Lynne Barr. Both actors shine in the film. Because Joel Murray has excelled small roles on Television for so long, there is a certain ironic pleasure in watching him fight back against the machine through which he has been part of for the last 20 years. Newcomer Tara Lynne Barr also turns a predictable character into a nuanced deeply realized three-dimensional human being.
Perhaps the easiest if unexpected narrative cousin to this film would be Gran Torino. Like the Eastwood film, God Bless America often relies on cliché-ridden stereotypes about the Millennial Generation to propel the revered elder into violent action. Like Gran Torino the film watches a father figure shepherd a single redeemable young person through the utter decay of their generation. Its almost as if Goldthwait is saying that the only thing that can save young people from themselves is a Baby Boomer with a shotgun. While the film throws some half-hearted jabs about Frank’s preconceived notions about Roxie’s music tastes, the film’s ethos seems overwhelmingly based on the fact that young people are awful.
Herein lies the ironic hypocrisy of the entire premise of the film. In killing and persecuting the haters with their blend of violence and sanctimonious speeches Frank and Roxy become the ultimate haters. By killing the in-groups of cruelty and shallowness, they too are creating a hated clique. This double-standard should make the duo as morally dubious as their victims.
Instead the film embraces the violence as a tool for judgment. With each kill or discussed kill, Frank proclaims himself to be the final arbiter of what is a murderable offense. While the film does resolve itself in classic Hays Code manner, Goldthwait can never reconciles the extreme and arbitrary cruelty of its protagonist with the high level of moral righteousness these characters are endowed with. Even when Frank gives his final speech decrying the moral decay, there is no counterpoint arguing the sanctity of the lives they are extinguishing, no matter how repulsive they may seem.
If you take the film at face value, this verges on fascism.
However, its hard to imagine Goldthwait means for the audience to take up arms against the cast of American Idol. the film’s violence is executed with such glee, there is little inclination to approach it as realism. The film itself plays with the idea of violence in movies actually causing violence in clever, creative, and occasionally hilarious ways. While the comedy and entertainment don’t necessarily justify the hypocrisy of the plot, it diffuses the argument that it could be inciting violence.
Instead the film is acting as a piece of wish fulfillment, exploring the hidden thoughts of murder lurking behind the civilized parts of their brain. As a former standup comedian, perhaps Goldthwait is uniquely equipped to pinpoint the exact buttons that modern society pushes that causes murder fantasies in otherwise peaceful psyches. While not completely void of cliché and predictability, the film’s portrayals of pop culture banality ranging from energy drinks to TMZ are pretty spot on, and watching their obliteration at the hands of two deeply likable characters remains strangely and hilariously cathartic.
It is only in carving a thesis enduring cinematic wisdom that the film fails. By verbalizing and realizing the micro-specimen of its view of humanity, Goldtwhait has lost the macro. Even in monologue after monologue that begs for a return to human connection or decency, the audience never gets a window into the soul of man. For this reason, God Bless America is Goldthwait’s least compelling film. The strange paradox is that may also be his best.