“God Bless America,” the latest film from stand-up comedian Bobcat Goldthwait, has a story that could have been told from a compelling angle. Joel Murray stars as Frank, a middle-aged man with nothing to lose, who goes on a murderous rampage, offing “scum of the earth” targets like Bill O’Reilly, a spoiled girl featured on MTV’s “My Super Sweet 16,” and the Westboro Baptist Church (names changed for legal purposes, of course). The film’s overall theme is that the widespread American acceptance of the incivility extolled by icons such as these is leading to the downfall of our culture — a trend that needs to be fought.
The compelling angle that Goldthwait could have told this story from would have been to treat Frank as an anti-hero, a repugnant symbol of incivility breeding more incivility. In other words, Goldthwait could have argued that the crass antics of figures like O’Reilly foster a cycle of uncivil discourse in the larger culture, spawning counter-psychos like Frank, who never would have existed had they not been provoked.
But Goldthwait, whose filmmaking tactics are as far from subtle as I’ve ever seen, never examines Frank in a critical light, missing the golden opportunity offered by his premise. Instead, the filmmaker cheers on the protagonist every step of the way, seemingly designing the film around opportunities for drunken Midnight audiences to cheer as pop-culture phenoms, social conservatives, and everyday assholes are shot point-blank. In doing so, “God Bless America” becomes a work of utter hypocrisy, celebrating militant action–the height of incivility–against anybody one might not agree with.
Whether Goldthwait intended the borderline amoral messages that “God Bless America” sends is unclear, but they come across as more likely a product of artistic laziness than deliberation. It repeatedly seems as though Goldthwait didn’t know how to put a personal rant about the ills of modern American culture into the language of cinema. As a result, he had Frank say it verbatim in long, uninterrupted inner-monologues and then materialized these with violence — the easiest way to emphasize urgency and anger.
Furthermore, Goldthwait’s worldview often reflects “old man syndrome” — a misunderstanding of the (primarily younger) audience’s reception of the material he critiques. Earth to Bobcat: “My Super Sweet 16” was made as a mockery of the entitled antics of rich kids and is viewed as such by even the most naive of viewers, not as a romanticization of their behavior. And seriously — Bill O’Reilly? While the political commentator’s tactics occasionally cross the line, no media figure has been more scrutinized; Goldthwait is just beating a dead horse. Thus, when “God Bless America” isn’t engaging in bankrupt rabble-rousing, it’s simply clueless.
Even though Goldthwait mishandles Frank, Joel Murray (brother of Bill) delivers a searing performance, as does 18-year-old Tara Lynne Barr, who plays Frank’s obligatory teen girl sidekick. (Furthering its hypocrisy, however, the film’s blatant critique of society’s sexualization of youths is at odds with its treatment of Barr, who doesn’t show skin but certainly milks all the glamour she can out of the “cool killer” archetype.) Alas, both leads are at the mercy of Goldthwait’s shoddy filmmaking abilities, which result in an end product that is equal parts inept and irresponsible.