May 07, 2012

God Bless America

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



God Bless America

COMEDY:

United States, 2012

U.S. Release Date:

2012-05-11

Running Length:

1:45

MPAA Classification:

R (Profanity, Violence, Sexual Content)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

2.35:1

Cast:

Joel Murray, Tara Lynne Barr

Director:

Bobcat Goldthwait

Screenplay:

Bobcat Goldthwait

Cinematography:

Bradley Stonesifer

U.S. Distributor:

Magnet Releasing

Subtitles:

none


This is an angry movie. When I write angry, I mean angry. At times, it comes across as a rant against celebrity-obsessed pop culture, reality TV, uncivilized interpersonal interaction, and the sense of entitlement that permeates modern society. Writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait has an ax to grind and, once he's done grinding it, he uses it to split some skulls. God Bless America is many things - audacious, bitingly satirical, unafraid of venturing into uncomfortable territory - but it is never subtle. It's also too long by about 15 minutes. The movie has a tendency to repeat itself unnecessarily. And the ending is not as ironic as it could (and should) be.

God Bless America's best moments come during the first half-hour, as Goldthwait scathingly lampoons TV trends while Frank (Joel Murray, who exudes a nice "everyman" quality), an insomniac, sits in front of his set all night long, his mind deadened by infomercials, reality TV, and a dead-on satire of American Idol. Frank fantasizes about slaughtering the self-absorbed family next door but never gets up the gumption to do so; he's too nice a guy. The next day at work, he's informed he is being laid off. He has run afoul of the company's zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy (he sent flowers to a fellow employee to cheer her up after finding out her home address by accessing her personnel file). That night, while Frank is watching more reality TV, something snaps. He takes his gun, steals his neighbor's car and goes on a road trip. His goal: locate one of the most loathsome reality TV stars and kill her. Along the way, he is joined by an unlikely partner: 16-year old Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr, looking like the "(school)girl next door"), who is as disdainful of pop culture as Frank. Together, they become spree killers, taking out men and women around the country who "deserve it."

There are times when God Bless America crosses the line from satire into wish-fulfillment. Consider the scene in a movie theater. Frank and Roxy are seated respectfully, watching the film, when a group of inconsiderate boors comes in. Not only do they enter after the movie has started, but they immediately begin talking and one whips out her cell phone to make a call. They exhibit behavior that, sadly, is more typical of multiplex crowds than exaggerated for comedic effect. Frank and Roxy address the problem in a fashion that most serious movie-goers have fantasized about. It's a great scene, and one that will win over many older (and a few younger) viewers.

Not everything in God Bless America works. The satire is so broad and nasty that attempts to build Frank and Roxy into real characters is doomed to failure. Goldthwait sets Frank's moral compass by making him uncomfortable about renting motel rooms with a 16-year old girl. She is open to the possibility of a sexual liaison - perhaps even hoping for it - but he is adamant that their relationship should be platonic. He is not a pedophile. When she asks him if he thinks she's pretty, he won't answer. He is killing bad people and he doesn't want to become one of those he's eliminating. Still, despite Goldthwait's best attempts to humanize Frank and Roxy, they never become more than pawns in his script and mouthpieces for his philosophy.

The movie jokingly references Bonnie and Clyde, but a more natural touchstone might be Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, with a passing nod to Joe vs. the Volcano. Although Natural Born Killers suffered from an overdose of Stone's masturbatory directorial flourishes, it entertained similar themes about the public's entertainment appetite and the media's complicity in satisfying it. With the sense of self-importance stripped away and the application of a traditional filming approach, God Bless America hits more notes than it misses and leaves a stronger impression than Natural Born Killers.

A lot of what God Bless America has to say is on-target and is presented in such a straightforward, unvarnished fashion that it's impossible to miss the honesty beneath the comedy. The movie is funny but it is also at times uncomfortable. It takes the ugliest possible view of today's society, looking at 2012 America through dark-tinted, cracked lenses. I agree with almost every point Goldthwait is making, but there are a few too many times when the story and characters become secondary to the message. God Bless America's tone is a match for that of Goldthwait's previous feature, World's Greatest Dad, and is as uncompromising when it comes to plumbing the depths of the term "dark comedy." This is an uneven production, but it is never uninteresting and it's occasionally hilarious. Those who take a bleak view of things like constant cell phone connection, reality TV, and similar societal blights will applaud what this movie says. Others may wonder if Goldthwait is really a misanthrope or whether he just writes movies from that perspective. Either way, God Bless America never enters the kindler, gentler mode we have come to expect from comedies. For that, everyone can be thankful.

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