Bobcat Goldthwait is mad as hell, and he's not going to take it anymore. At least, the two main characters of his dark comedy God Bless America won't, as they drive across the country mercilessly gunning down all the people they feel are responsible for making America an uglier, meaner, less compassionate, more ignorant place. Still, the words coming from the mouth of Frank (Joel Murray) and Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr) -- a depressed divorced office worker who's diagnosed with terminal cancer and a teenager who shares Frank's rage at America's empathic and substantive decline -- are unmistakably Goldthwait's, borne from the disgust all of us should feel after too many nights surveying a cable TV landscape full of conservative blowhards, reality TV bottom feeders, and content whose most shocking attribute is how utterly banal it has become.
But is mass murder a good way to combat America's lack of compassion? Can we lament a deficit of kindness and respectful intellectual discourse while laughing at a duo happy to kill people for offenses as minor as using annoying slang or parking inconsiderately? Click the image below to hear my ReThink Review of God Bless America on the Uprising Show (transcript following).
American culture seems to be in an accelerating race to the bottom. Reality TV stars like the Kardashians and any number of "real" housewives celebrate materialism, pettiness, and unearned celebrity. Tea Party-led Republicans have amplified a virulent strain of conservatism defined by demonization, cruelty to those in need, willful ignorance, and ideological intransigence. And too many Americans seem content to believe what they're told while eagerly awaiting the next freakshow or celebrity meltdown.
So how do we stem this decline and the lack of compassion at its core? For the "heroes" in God Bless America, a film written and directed by comedian Bobcat Goldthwait, the solution is simple -- mercilessly gun down all perceived offenders, from Bill O'Reilly-style pundits to teenagers who text during movies. The result is a film that is, in part, a cathartic liberal revenge fantasy, but one so deeply flawed that it arguably reinforces the sins it decries.
In the film, Joel Murray plays Frank, a lonely divorcee who's fed up with the lack of civility and substance found in his coworkers, neighbors, late-night cable, and even his tween daughter, who's beginning to resemble a selfish, entitled mean girl who's the star of a thinly-veiled version of MTV's My Super Sweet Sixteen.
After being diagnosed with terminal cancer, Frank murders the mean girl, and in the process, is joined by a classmate of hers named Roxy (played by Tara Lynne Barr) who shares Frank's lethal rage at the rude and annoying people they feel are bringing America down. So the two embark on a cross-country killing spree, where their victims include (but are by no means limited to) Westboro Baptist-style Christian fanatics, people who take two spots to park their car, mixed martial arts fans, and people who ridicule the delusional contestants found on shows like American Idol.
Needless to say, God Bless America is the inkiest of black comedies, and the audience I saw it with laughed heartily at nearly all the murders, maybe out of discomfort, from the outlandishness of the violence, or from the satisfaction of watching a common enemy receiving the most extreme comeuppance. After all, I'm sure even liberals, in our darkest and most secret moments, have wished for the untimely, hopefully painful death of those who irritate us in the biggest and smallest ways, whether it's someone who cut you off in traffic, a drunk jerk at a bar, or a media figure who profits from spreading lies, hate, and xenophobia. And for normally violence- and gun-averse liberals, there's a perverse thrill at seeing an armed avenging angel for the left.
But for me, that thrill, and the laughs that go with it went away VERY quickly. Maybe it's because I knew that if a killing spree of this magnitude happened in real life, it wouldn't be funny at all. Maybe because despite being a critic of America's pop and political culture, I'd still receive a death sentence for enjoying mixed martial arts, reading celebrity gossip, and occasionally sharing a high five. Maybe it's the film's dialogue, which sounds more like speeches than conversation. Or it's thinking about how I'd feel about a movie where Christian fundamentalists blast everyone they consider sinners, or one where tormented high school students go on a shooting rampage to rid their school of bullying jocks and shallow popular kids, or where gun-toting Republicans murder environmentalists, feminists, and anyone who watches The Daily Show. Would there be redeeming social commentary in that? And how would I feel about people who laughed at it?
But my main issue is the idea of responding to American culture's meanness, vapidity, and lack of compassion with cold-blooded, largely senseless murder. Goldthwait deserves credit for making such an uncompromising in-your-face film, but if there's a more noble message than becoming worse than your enemies to show that your enemies are wrong and beating them in the race to the bottom, it was lost on me. Maybe I'm just too dumb to figure it out, perhaps yet another reason why I should be marked for death.
God Bless America is rated R and is in select theaters and video on demand.
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