Review: GOD BLESS AMERICA Wisely Skewers Modern Society
Fiercely funny, savage and wise, Bobcat Goldthwait's God Bless America is the best American comedy I've seen in a very, very long time.
It's an ungainly film because Goldthwait is still developing his skills as a director. That means some scenes are scorchingly well-executed, while others land with a thud, reminiscent of a stand-up comic. Goldthwait has worked up killer material that fills 75% of the running time, which is a much higher percentage than most comedies in recent memory. That leaves too much time for sludge to accumulate between the highlights.
Whatever Goldthwait may lack as a filmmaker, though his voice cries out in the wilderness like an Old Testament prophet, calling attention to all that is wrong in modern American society. You may not agree with his complaints, you may not like his methods, and you may think his proposed solution too simplistic, but you cannot deny the furious, righteous anger of that singular voice.
Joel Murray brings weight, compassion, and conviction to the lead role of Frank, a middle-aged, everyman character who has observed life from the comfort of a boring 9-5 office job, coming home every night to spend sleepless nights zonked out in front of the TV, which displays the cesspool of self-centered, self-serving, selfish society. He fantasizes about offing his oafish neighbors in the crudest, most violent manner possible. Frank spins off into an angry speech at the office, expressing his personal contempt for what he's witnessed, and then learns that he's been fired due to a violation of the company's sexual harassment policy.
That -- and some sobering news about his health -- eventually sets Frank on the road to personal fulfillment through the murder of the most repellent criminal and social offenders in the country. Is he a psychopath? A delusional, self-righteous avenger? Or might he speak the truth about what's needed to root out evil in the land? He crosses paths with teenage Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), a rebel with a violent streak of her own, and together they forge a bloody trail of unhinged vigilante justice.
Like a B-movie version of Sidney Lumet's Network (written by Paddy Chayefsky), God Bless America is a series of speeches linked by outrageous actions that defy credulity. As a writer, Goldthwait is funnier than Chayefsky, but not as incisive in his social commentary. Despite the movie's cross-country adventuring, Goldthwait is painting on a smaller canvas than Chayefsky did; Goldthwait's villains are thinly-drawn staw men who only live to confirm his worst fears about the coarsening of American society, while Chayefsky aimed more at institutional foes.
Goldthwait sticks to an individualistic view, presenting a number of screeds against personal behavior that has worsened over the years in a variety of settings. If, through Frank and Roxy, Goldthwait sometimes sounds like an old man telling the kids to get off his lawn, well, wait until you've spent years carefully tending your grass through thick and thin, only to watch selfish people threaten to destroy it with a few moments of careless actions. And now expand that reaction -- to neighborhoods, cities, counties, states, and, yes, the entire country. If you think things are getting better, or that everyone has always behaved the same way throughout history, well, you may want to take another, more considered look.
And I suggest you start with God Bless America, a cautionary tale for everyone who thinks everything is just fine and dandy.
God Bless America opens on Friday, May 11, in limited release in the U.S. Check the official site for more information and theatre listings.