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Review: God Bless America

God Bless America is the latest film from Bobcat Goldthwait, ’80s star and present day indie filmmaker. I saw World’s Greatest Dad last year and mostly enjoyed it, and I’ve really been enjoying Goldthwait’s interviews on shows like Comedy Bang Bang, so I was looking forward to seeing his latest. (It’s in a limited number of theaters this week but it’s already available On Demand, which is how I saw it.) Minor spoilers follow but honestly there’s not much to spoil as the whole film is one-note, and it’s the note you can see in the trailer:

The plot is, basically, a progressive straight white male (Joel Murray as “Frank”) snaps and starts murdering awful people, like reality TV stars, a Bill O’Reilly stand-in, and even a cinematic version of the Phelps family, all while delivering angry monologues. He’s soon joined by a teen (Tara Lynne Barr as “Roxy”) with a similar bloodlust.

More effort seems to have gone into writing Frank’s rants then into worrying about plot or character development, and as such some of the rants are really, really good. You would “like” them if Frank had written them on your Facebook wall. Some of the rants include disgust with the term “feminazi,” frustration about how people are too mean, and my favorite rant on the inappropriate objectification of young girls and the false belief that all men naturally want to have sex with teens.

Despite how much I enjoyed some of those rants, I really didn’t enjoy the film as a whole. There was no suspense – in an interview, Goldthwait said he didn’t want to make a cop drama that showed detectives closing in on them and he purposely didn’t give any thought to how the characters were (literally) getting away with murder for so long. It’s fine for a filmmaker to make unrealistic choices in order to better focus on the story he wants to tell, but he had better really make up for it. I expected the movie to be a bit of a guilty thrill that was meant to explore deeper issues of morality, but it was far too shallow to give you anything to really think about. For instance, the film obviously uses graphic violence while trying to argue against sensationalism, but there’s never a moment in the story when the audience is given a chance to examine that.

Another level that was sadly unexplored was the fact that even the protagonists can’t live up to their own standards. There are several moments in the film when Frank and Roxy delightedly discuss what categories of people deserve to die: “People who use ‘rockstar’ as an adjective. As in rockstar parking.” “People who pound energy drinks all day.” “People who use the term ‘edgy,’ ‘in your face,’ or ‘extreme.'” They seriously had two scenes’ worth of these.

But one of the categories was “people who give or receive high fives.” That one stood out to me because it goes against Frank’s stated desire to kill people who are mean, as high fives are exactly the opposite of mean. High fives are for cheering people up or cheering them on. High fives make the world a better place. Improv Everywhere knows what I’m talking about:

Sure enough, Frank at one point wants to high-five Roxy, and she shoots him a dirty look. It’s just a one-off joke, but that’s a shame because it could have been the start of a more interesting dynamic in which both Frank and Roxy have to come to terms with the fact that their pronouncements on who deserves to die are utterly subjective and their standards are far too high.

In addition to the high five scene, there are other moments that seemed to go against Frank’s own rants about being nice. He fantasizes about shooting a baby, for instance, and he’s fired from his job for sending flowers to a new receptionist’s house because he got her address by going into the company files. I think we’re supposed to feel bad for him in that scene, and while I wouldn’t necessarily want to see a guy like that fired in real life, surely he should be able to see how creepy it would be for him to break into company files to find the home address of a woman he doesn’t know. As he’s escorted out of the building he demands the receptionist give back a book he just loaned her, showing he’s angry at her. Why? Shouldn’t he be angry at a culture that encourages men to transgress boundaries even at the expense of a woman’s feeling of safety? Maybe he is, but the movie doesn’t show us.

There’s a chance that all the film’s shallowness is a purposeful attempt to comment on the shallowness of our media in some meta way, but even if so, I don’t think it works. The basic plot is great, and some of the rants are great, but ultimately it was unfulfilling as both a guilty pleasure and a deeper think piece.

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Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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6 Comments

  1. I enjoyed the movie as a bit of a guilty pleasure, though I do agree with most of your critiques. Though, I’m not sure I agree that that there was anything untoward toward the receptionist. I think the point behind it is that he was trying to be a nice guy and was fired for it. Just because someone shows interest and tries to do something nice doesn’t make them bad, and the movie, I think, attempted to illustrate that she had never made any indication that she didn’t like his actions. As far as breaking into company files, I didn’t take it quite like that, as much as he used the employee files on the computer to get the address, which isn’t much of anything and doesn’t take much effort, in an attempt to make someone he liked feel better.

    Anyways, that’s just my take.

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