“You kill yourself, Frank, and you’re killing the wrong person, which would be a shame when there are so many other Chloes out there who need to die.” — God Bless America
Writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait (a former stand-up comedian), whose debut behind the camera was Shakes the Clown (1991) about an alcoholic clown, has presented his latest directorial effort God Bless America (2011), screened first at TIFF. It’s now in limited theatrical release in U.S. After World’s Greatest Dad (2009), starring Robin Williams as a high school teacher who uses his son’s death to gain fame, Goldthwait has consolidated his name as one of the most promising ‘black comedy’ directors, in the same league as Terry Zwigoff, Todd Solondz, and Alexander Payne. Another blunt example of his skills as sardonic social commentator is shown clearly in God Bless America, which Goldthwait calls “a violent movie about kindness,” starring Joel Murray (Mad Men, Dharma and Greg) and newcomer Tara Lynne Barr (who played Sunshine Girl in the horror short Road Kill in 2005).
Frank (Joel Murray) is a resented divorcée whose life is patently miserable due to frequent migraines and drone work in an office cubicle, besides an antagonistic relationship with ex-wife Alison (Melinda Page Hamilton, who starred in Sleeping Dogs Lie directed by Goldthwait in 2006) and spoiled daughter Ava (Mackenzie Brooke Smith). The icing on the cake is when Frank (an insomniac who puts up with impolite neighbours and their screaming baby) gets fired from his job after being accused by a female receptionist–whom he’s just lent the parody novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies–of harassment. Almost immediately, he also discovers he suffers from an inoperable brain tumor.
Finding himself trapped in an existential dead end, Frank is prepared to commit suicide while he’s surfing through reality TV shows. He’s horrified as he contemplates teenage tyrant Chloe (Maddie Hasson) on-screen, who he recognizes as one of the toxic role models responsible of causing his daughter Ava’s disturbed behaviour. Enraged, Frank visits next morning Chloe’s school and executes the girl right away, with only a witness: a conflicted 16-year-old student named Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr).
Roxy, intrigued and with a possible crush on Frank, knocks on his door at a nearby motel. She convinces him of being his “partner-in-crime” on his mission to rid the world of all the entitled media stars and more broadly, people who are not nice. Frank reluctantly agrees to allow her to accompany him. As a pair of “platonic spree killers”, they hit the road in a stolen car around the country, choosing as targets Tea Party members, the Westboro Baptist Church, Bill O’Reilly / Glenn Beck surrogates and rude people who turn on their cellulars in movie theaters.
God Bless America is a sharp, lucid satire about the pop culture decline and other unhealthy obsessions of the Western civilization, utilizing imaginative monologues as empowering weapons to awaken our redoubt of decency and common sense.
Frank: “I refuse to objectify a child… I mean, that’s part of what’s wrong with everything. I’m not American Apparel, I’m not the creep that came up with those Bratz dolls. I mean, fuck R Kelly, fuck Vladimir Nabokov, and fuck Mary Kay Letourneau while we’re at it. Fuck Woody Allen and his whole ‘the heart wants what it wants’ bullshit. Apparently that erudite genius’ heart wants the same thing the run of the mill pedophile wants, a young hairless Asian. Nobody cares that they damage other people.”
Frank represents a mix between the Everyman, the Overman prototype and the resilient outcast (as Howard Beale in Network or Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver) and his journey has parallels to other films as Natural Born Killers, American Dreamz, Idiocracy, Rampage, Super, etc. Particularly, there are similarities depicting the antihero enduring intense alienation and outbursts of catastrophic speeches in the same vein that Falling Down (1993)–a film that Goldthwait considers ‘terrible’–similarities that disappear in their respective final acts, since Frank remains morally unbeatable. Roxy lying to Frank recounting her family background can remind us of another revenge fantasy flick: Freeway, starring Reese Witherspoon in 1996.
Goldthwait denies the character is literally based on him, but he partly identifies: “I guess maybe I snapped in a way, that I turned my back on the whole Hollywood system.”
There is an underlying, insidious theme in God Bless America that maybe escapes the average viewer: the effects of a post-feminist environment triggering male despondency. In expounding the links between pop culture, masculinity and depression, we see how hard is for a middle aged guy (stigmatized by a PC society) to break free from the chains of determinism. Isolation, or the varying cluster of depressive symptoms is a condition attributable to a context of undermined self-esteem.
When Franks murders Chloe, a part of him wants to kill what he identifies as the very harmful cause of his daughter’s detachment. He hasn’t got any girlfriend or future prospects of a stable relationship. Frank’s only companion is his confidant Roxy, but as he’s reiterated, she’s an impossible romance. Some criticism to Diablo Cody (Roxy detests being called ‘Juno’) could further suggest the fear of a ubiquity of angsty young females who threaten to limit the modern male’s scope. The word ‘Feminazi’ (a term popularized by talk-show host Rush Limbaugh) appears during a showdown with a famous TV host who promotes xenophobia and misogyny.
There are many more thought provoking references all during the film, enhanced by Stonesiferas’s tense cinematography and Matt Kollar’s musical score, that culminate in a confrontation via “American Superstars” live-show, where Frank and Roxy will reunite on stage after having broken up their strange liaison and abandoned mutual plans of fleeing to France. The French feminists Catherine Clément and Hélène Cixous in “The Newly Born Woman” (1975) decried the “dual, hierarchical oppositions” set up by the traditional patriarchal philosophy of determinateness, wherein “death is always at work” as “the premise of woman’s abasement.”
In defense of those who Frank considers the weakest victims affected by the mass-media’s vitriol, he expresses his inconsolable disappointment in the institutions and people who have devolved into a shadow (Goldwaith thinks apathy is the worst flaw in the American character):
“My name is Frank. That’s not important. The important question is: who are you? America has become a cruel and vicious place. We reward the shallowest, the dumbest, the meanest and the loudest. We no longer have any common sense of decency. No sense of shame. There is no right and wrong. The worst qualities in people are looked up to and celebrated. Lying and spreading fear is fine as long as you make money doing it. We’ve become a nation of slogan-saying, bile-spewing hatemongers. We’ve lost our kindness. We’ve lost our soul. What have we become? We take the weakest in our society, we hold them up to be ridiculed, laughed at for our sport and entertainment. Laughed at to the point, where they would literally rather kill themselves than live with us anymore.”
The leading actors give us sincere performances, and in the case of Joel Murray, he alone turns the film into a cult classic. Tara Lynne Barr, as his ‘prodigal daughter,’ acts hilariously cynical and tender at once. Unlike other anti-system movies, this is an especially human one, without exaggerations or fake tricks, exposing the manipulation without becoming manipulative, just a naked and laid bare portrait of our collective anger and unconcern, one whose message probably isn’t crude enough or offensive enough for those people hooked on cheap thrills (the same folks who are unceremoniously taken out in the film). The power ballad “I Never Cry” by Alice Cooper will linger on your memory long after the credits roll.
Frank only wants to kill people who deserve to die. Is his reasoning (“this is the ‘Oh no, you didn’t say that!’ generation, where a shocking comment has more weight than the truth”) really valid or muddled by his apparent self-loathing? The answer is a not easy one.