God Bless America
A warped and devilishly dark comedy, God Bless America is a beguiling satire on modern American culture, standards, and society’s unfathomable lack of kindness. The film follows the spiraling breakdown of Frank (played by Bill Murray’s brother, Joel Murray of Mad Men), a middle-aged and down on his luck Syracuse native and his unusual sidekick, Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), a vengeance wielding 16-year-old girl who has a penchant for Alice Copper and an uncanny knack with a handgun.
This is a no-holds-barred film – an equal opportunity offender – with no one spared or off-limits: neither the young nor the old alike. Not the sick, the dying, the pious, or the proud. Meaning, it is not a film for the faint of heart or those overly prone to influence. And it should definitely be avoided by all those uncomfortable with turning the lens on their own societal role, including their idiosyncratic beliefs and habits. God Bless America is one of those rare films where you will laugh alongside the characters, cringe all the while, and then question if you’re somehow partially responsible for their frustrations to begin with?
Frank’s marriage has failed, despite his best efforts his daughter has grown into a spoiled brat, and he shares a wall with a nocturnal siren of a newborn whose parents discuss the wasted potential of Lindsay Lohan while rocking it to sleep. He goes to bed to bad TV after dismally catching a clip of “American Superstarz” where the Simon Cowell stand-in pompously ridicules off the stage a possibly mentally handicap boy, Steven Clark (Aris Alvarado), urging him to seek medical help for his condition. The comparisons to American Idol are numerous and markedly, hilariously sad. To Frank’s disappointment, his entire office, not to mention all the news programs, laugh at the misfortune of Steven’s off-key performance as it goes viral. And just to spur things on further, Frank gets fired from his cubicle job essentially as a result of being nice to a female co-worker who was having a bad day.
After being fired, Frank sulks to the doctor’s where he discovers the insufferable migraines he has are in fact due to a malignant brain tumor. The conclusion: Frank’s going to die, and soon. He decides he’ll just kill himself. That is until he catches a clip of a reality program in which a teenage girl, Chloe (played by Maddie Hasson), screams, cries and curses at her father for buying her a Lexus instead of an Escalade for her 16th birthday (it should be noted this was also an actual episode on MTV’s show My Super Sweet 16 with very little exaggeration). What else to do then other than begin a marauding killing spree?
Although there’s a lack of anything in the way of profound character development, Murray’s portrayal of Frank is executed with such gloriously gloomy sincerity that, despite the ensuing tirade of blood, he evokes an odd sympathy of veiled understanding. Frank is a passionately frustrated vigilante – gunning down right-wing pundits, Westboro Baptist Church Christians, and selfish civilians all the same. As his accomplice, Barr delivers a truly standout performance, her Roxy a defiant outcast with quick-witted, albeit naïve, intelligence. Awestruck by Frank’s murder of the class bully, Roxy convinces Frank to drive across country and kill out of poetic justice. Just don’t expect any cops in hot pursuit; instead Writer/Director Bobcat Goldthwait (World’s Greatest Dad) plays up this lack of understanding on the side of authority as part of his message – people always need a scapegoat; a reason besides themselves for why bad things happen.
Goldthwait does more than straddle the fence of the politically incorrect; he does a Russian folk dance on top of it whilst drunk. The script is teeming with spitfire monologues, which are sure to boil up some magnificent controversy, and, in hope, a dialogue on the Everyman’s passive, destructive role in our culture. That’s not to condone the obviously crude and, quite often, disturbing scenes that present themselves are good time cheer. Admittedly, there were a few worrisome moments where some audience members seemed a tad too elated to watch a spoiled girl get shot in the back of the head, or a priest holding an “I hate fags” sign during a funeral get run over while Roxy hangs out the passenger window unloading a clip full of bullets into the protesting crowd.
Goldthwait’s vision, he explains, stems from that fact that “as a society we kind of mock the weak. Reality Television is becoming the new Coliseum.” This shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone who has spent even a minute amount of time flicking through a primetime cable TV lineup. Frank states repeatedly in the film that he only wants to kill people who “deserve to die” – people who lack empathy or goodwill towards their fellow man. He takes on the role (rightfully or not) to become the arbiter for all those unable to defend themselves against the cruel masses out to exploit them.
“Why have a civilization anymore, if we’re no longer interested in being civilized?” Frank asks. And yes, his mission has a tendency to be crude and hypocritical – which is exactly the point. Goldthwait subversively raises questions on the policies we hardly even bat an eye at; the death penalty for instance, as Frank takes life and death into his own hands for deeds he feels are endangering the wellbeing of citizens in his country.
Regardless of personal belief, it’s easy to imagine the backlash that’d ensue if the film was motivated from the standpoint of the Republicans, the Tea Party, or a group of young outcasts getting revenge on the popular kids in school. But in the same way, it deserves the discussion, forcing the question: What would cause individuals who pride themselves on empathy, charity, and understanding to reach this point of rage, even if it is fictional? Perhaps it’s a soul cry, a Buddhist monk lighting himself on fire? In the ultimate irony, perhaps God Bless America is the perfect example of America’s egotistic and desensitized frame of mind.