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“It’s a family film for everyone”
God Bless America finally arrived on DVD, and it’s packing. I called this one as a “must-see” and it is. Bobcat Goldthwait, who has returned to the limelight as an indie writer/director, has finally had enough of contemporary American culture. And who could blame him?
In God Bless America, the protagonist Frank lives a hellish existence, bombarded by loud, rude neighbors, vapid parrot co-workers, and a chronic migraine. He’s turned to TV to drown out some of the noise from next door. In shock and amazement at what he sees nightly on his screen, Frank is set up as someone on the very edge, a live wire, a powder keg ready to go off.
When his neurologist informs Frank of a terminal brain tumor, and Frank’s own estranged daughter begins mimicking the garbage from television, Frank finally calls it a day. With a gun in his mouth, he accidentally turns back on the TV, and is suddenly confronted with a choice. A moral choice?
Anyone who’s seen the trailer knows what happens next. Perhaps the trailer gave away too much of the film, but still it’s stuffed with funny and thought-provoking scenes. A genuinely funny spree killing road picture is a rare thing indeed. One with such political and social satire rarer still.
The two leads, Joel Murray and 17 year old Tara Lynn Barr, have a magical screen chemistry that makes this outrageous over the top massacre picture seem plausible and real. Of course the dialogue gets a little preachy, with a 3 page monologue given to Frank, near the beginning. But, then again, that’s the point Frank has come down from the mountain to make, that soundbite culture is shallow and meaningless, and that important topics need real communication and discussion. The writing style grows organically from the subject matter. That’s not to say the film is bogged down with excessive talk. Sequences and montages are skillfully incorporated to break up the flow and to leave viewers guessing as to where these two loonies can possibly go next.
God Bless America felt like something that Mike Judge might have concocted (Idiocracy, Office Space). It is aimed directly at pop culture, the mindless cheering for whatever simplistic gibberish ends up on a screen: the nihilism that is championed in the media, star worship, the mistreatment of others for entertainment, and the glaringly insane Tea Party propaganda.
An interesting real-world divergence happened along the way to production, as far as can be ascertained from the behind the scenes interviews. It seems that Goldthwait’s interpretation of Roxy, the psycho teen spree killing partner, and Tara Lynn Barr’s understanding were a little bit different. A little at odds, actually. Goldthwait seemed to write her off as simply insane several times; that’s his position. The actress, however, had more political motives for her killings which are in evidence in the story. Barr was concerned with justifying the character’s actions, taking them from the “insane” to the sane and giving them legitimacy. A particular scene, where a vicious right-wing TV propagandist is shot by Barr seems to make that point. While many of the character’s actions could be considered clearly immoral, and/or the work of insane people, it is certainly not all. Goldthwait proclaimed that he was against all violence and is a vegetarian. His explanation for writing the piece is simply as a message to the nation to be nice. Or else?
The blackness of the satire is perhaps even darker than expected. The film’s first minute includes a baby blasted with a shotgun. The intent was apparently to screen out a part of the audience. Goldthwait hoped they would simply walk out after his litmus test.
The film’s budget was not disclosed, but domestic gross was on the order of $120,000, clearly not a big hit. From what was on screen, it could be quite a loss unless the DVD and rental market sees some exceptional activity.
I don’t think God Bless America will end up in too many Christmas stockings this year though. It’s such a shame that Americans are unable or uninterested in looking in the mirror, nor curious as to how others see them. That is what’s reflected in the numbers, as it should have been a runaway hit. Like other dark satires that have preceded it and failed commercially, the genre remains a highly-risky venture. It’s truly a shame, as this is where the best of American cinema can be found today. American film today is usually formula or nostalgia, and winds up saying not a lot.
In Judge’s Idiocracy, there’s a running gag about the cinema of the future. FART, The Movie, is the biggest success of their time, multi Academy Award winner and pretty much the only movie shown at the multiplexes. Are we there yet?
I’m now sold on Goldthwait, and will look forward to catching his previous indie projects, as well as whatever comes next. He’s a funny guy, with the maturity to actually say what we’re not allowed to hear from our corporate programmers. God Bless America is going on my best of the year list. As Bobcat said: “If you don’t like my movie, then go suck it.”