God Bless America Review

Featuring: Joel Murray, Tara Lynne Barr, Mackenzie Brooke Smith, Melinda Page Hamilton, Rich McDonald
Director: Bobcat Goldthwait
Writer: Bobcat Goldthwait
Website: www.magnetreleasing.com/godblessamerica/
Perth release date: 13 December, 2012
Reviewer: rolanstein (one-word verdict: disappointing)

Curmudgeonly middle-aged divorcee Frank (Joel Murray, brother of Bill) lives alone next to inconsiderate neighbours with an eternally bawling baby. He channel-surfs through his miserable evenings, scowling contemptuously as he switches between vacuous reality TV, ‘talent’ shows and other crud. He pines for his brattish daughter, who resists his efforts to organise a custodial visit, complaining that there‚Äôs nothing to do at his place.

It gets worse. He is unjustly sacked from his job, then is diagnosed with a terminal condition. With nothing to lose, he decides to take out some trash with the time he has left. He is saved from suicide by an equally disillusioned and angry high school student, Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), who witnesses and is inspired by his shooting of a fellow student – the painfully petulant and spoilt star of a reality TV show. The unlikely duo embark on a shooting spree, their targets including obnoxious celebrities, the rude, the inconsiderate and those whose values and politics they despise.

What an irresistible premise: takin’ out the trash, just cos you deem they deserve to die!

How often I’ve wished I had a grenade to lob into the passing car of a driver who out of petty spite speeds up to prevent me from switching lanes. Mention Ronan Keating and I think torture instruments. Hold up a pic of an AK47 and I’ll free-associate straight to the Collingwood football club, starting with President McGuire.

I had great expectations of God Bless America, then, which targets a long list of pet peeves of writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait with which many will identify (eg: car park hogs, disruptive neighbours, shock jocks, celebs like the Kardashians, people who give high fives, and – gripe of gripes – TV talent shows). The trailer is a hoot, and indeed, the movie lives up to its black comedic promise for the first third or so.

Within minutes of the opening scene, sour old Frank takes a rifle next door to liquidate his annoying neighbours. Cornered and looking down the barrel, the mother tosses her howling baby in the air out of desperate reflex; Frank blows it away in mid-air like a duck shooter, showering its horrified mother and himself with blood and guts. It’s all so over the top and cartoon-like, you can safely guffaw without feeling bad or arousing suspicion among fellow cinema attendees that there’s a psycho in their midst. Especially when it turns out it’s only a dream. But you know it’s a prophetic one. Bewdy! At this point I was leaning forward in a state of glee, eagerly anticipating a rollicking good time.

While Frank and his precocious teen sidekick Roxy are purging pop-culture of its obnoxious figureheads and dumbarse fans, blamming away at inconsiderate jerks yabbering on their mobile phones during a movie, and meting out full poetic justice to that loathsome contemporary archetype, the arsehole who straddles two car parking spaces then responds to the protestation of parkless onlookers with a raised middle finger as he walks nonchalantly away, you chuckle and inwardly cheer, and why not? There’s a vicarious pleasure in having your dark fantasies enacted in graphic detail before your merry eyes. It’s about as close to a sense of payback as any sane person is going to come!

Unfortunately, the film goes off the rails and the comedy begins to pall when Goldthwait starts to take himself too seriously, moving away from the flippant and into the realm of the seriously socio-political. He has his vigilante duo mow down members of the Tea Party, then a bunch of Christian fundamentalists holding up anti-Jewish placards, then a mob of anti-abortionist crazies parading by the side of a busy road.

Suddenly, the irreverence that characterises the film in its earlier stages and to which it owes its success as a black comedy piece gives way to a hateful righteousness and anger that is no less contemptible than that of the groups targeted, and no longer funny. The core problem here, though, is that these are deeply divisive political activist groups that are truly plausible targets – in stark contrast to, say, “people who talk about punk rock” (one of Roxy’s funniest contributions to the hit-list). Not to mention way too obvious and PC (from a leftist viewpoint). Remaining politically INcorrect and irreverent is vital to the humour in a satire like this.

There is an earlier instance of didactic authorial intrusion that rings warning bells, when Frank goes on an over-elaborate rant about TV talent shows to a fellow office worker. It is obvious that Goldthwait has taken the pulpit and is speaking through his character, relegating Joel Murray to a mouthpiece. Murray, who proves himself a formidable acting talent in his role as Frank, does his best to have his character take ownership of the long speech, but he has to pull out all stops and still the hand of the writer looms large over the scene.

Similarly, in a later scene Roxy is assigned an extended passage of righteous criticism of various aspects of American culture that smacks of smug, effortful over-eloquence on the part of the screenwriter, and thus doesn’t ring true as faux-spontaneous character dialogue. This is bad writing, plain and simple, and most unfair on Tara Lynne Barr. She does a passable job as Roxy, but is not up to the task of simultaneously being Goldthwait’s proselytizing dummy while convincingly remaining in character.

In the course of the movie, an iconoclastic blowtorch is applied to some American sacred cows (the Kennedy Dallas assassination scene is referenced as Frank drives along in an open-top convertible with Roxy dressed like Jackie), but it’s all a bit try-hard and gratuitous. If the purpose is other than to outrage and court controversy, it escaped me.

Further, even allowing for the twisted moral parameters of satire, there are some contradictions in Frank that itch and can’t be ignored. In the context of setting firm boundaries in his relationship with Roxy, who is engaging in some provocative, semi-seductive talk, he denounces pedophilia and reels off some notorious offenders/alleged proponents including Woody Allen and Nabokov (the latter being guilty of writing Lolita, to my mind one of the greatest novels in the English language). Pushed by Roxy, he refuses to acknowledge his physical attraction to her, to which she astutely retorts “so it’s OK for you to murder teenagers, but not to fuck them?” Or, I might add, corrupt them beyond redemption by involving them in multiple vengeful killings…

Then there is the problem of his “cure” for America’s spiral into shallow celebrity worship, unkind humour, extreme right wing politics, intolerance, selfishness, rudeness and other modes of uncivilised behaviour: guns! Yeah, of course the movie is not supposed to be taken seriously, but in veering off the irreverent territory it starts in, it surrenders its immunity from the sort of criticism I’m making here.

Dramatically, too, there are some fatal flaws. As the narrative progresses, the premise wears thin. If the humour had been preserved, that would have been a saving grace. But with the energy and laughs flagging, the plot manipulation gets clunky, and the movie moves to an unimaginative and unsatisfying end that sells Frank and Roxy short and is all too familiar, given the obvious character parallels – actually articulated by Roxy at one point – with Bonny and Clyde.

In the final analysis, there’s not much here that hasn’t already been covered more deftly in subversive TV shows like South Park and The Simpsons. To be sure, there are some laughs to be had, some vicarious gratification for those who share Goldthwait’s gripes about today’s world, and Joel Murray’s lead performance is quite an eye-opener. The bummer, though, is that the all-too-obvious elements of preachiness and didacticism that emerge in the script undermine the edginess, humour and irreverence that promise so much in the early stages.

For other Boomtown Rap movie reviews, see Movie Review Archives

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