During the 1980s, actor Bobcat Goldthwait wasn’t known so much for what he said, but how he said it. His screechy, manic voice can be found in the Police Academy movies and other films from the period. Now that he’s a writer and director, Goldthwait is demonstrating that he has something to say as well.
His latest movie, "God Bless America," is proof. Goldthwait’s dark comedy takes a critical look at the world of reality TV and pop culture – a world where bad behavior or a willingness to embarrass yourself can turn you into a star overnight.
Though a lot of attention has focused on the violence in the film, Goldthwait’s all-too-real depiction of how reality TV has infected other aspects of society, such as politics, may be more disturbing.
"God Bless America" is the story of Frank (Joel Murray), a man who is fed up with the world he sees on his TV. When Frank loses his job after a kind gesture is misinterpreted by a co-worker, it’s proof to Frank that the world has lost its bearings. As Frank puts it, what’s the point of having a civilization if we are no longer interested in being civilized?The final straw comes when he’s diagnosed with a deadly tumor. With nothing left to lose, Frank decides to make the world a better place by killing a bratty teenage reality star before taking his own life. He succeeds at killing her, but is stopped from taking his own life by Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), a teenager delighted by the death of her classmate.
Roxy is also disgusted by the world around her. She wants to do something about it, too. She convinces Frank they need to go on a killing spree that will rid the world of horrible reality stars, blow-hard pundits and anyone else they find objectionable.
Barr truly shines in her role. Her character brings much-needed energy to the screen as she names the types of people on her hit list (people who high-five and women who call their breasts “the girls” both make her long list). Murray does a great job of portraying the downtrodden Frank, but the movie would become too dour without Barr.
"God Bless America" inevitably draws comparisons to "Falling Down," the 1993 Joel Schumacher film where Michael Douglas portrays a divorcee who takes out his frustration with the world during a rampage in Los Angeles. But Goldthwait’s film takes a broader perspective.
Frank is genuinely concerned about a country that entertains itself by watching the humiliation of a tone-deaf contestant attempting to sing on an American Idol-type show. He’s worried about a nation that has grown callous and complacent as it consumes entertainment aimed at the lowest-common denominator. Goldthwait wonderfully brings Frank’s worries to a head at the end of the movie, which takes place at the singing competition.
There are other thoughtful critiques as well. When we see that Frank’s inconsiderate neighbor has a yellow ribbon proclaiming his support for the troops on his car bumper, there’s a strong sense this thoughtless neighbor wouldn’t behave any better toward a veteran. He’s incapable of seeing beyond himself. It’s a brief moment in the movie, but it exposes a society that values the empty gesture.
Unfortunately, Goldthwait could have done more to flesh out Frank and Roxy. There are moments where he simply uses Frank as a vehicle to recite long monologues about his disgust with the world. He also resorts to having Roxy name the types of people on her hit list for comedic effect too many times. Yet the strange father-daughter relationship they develop during their Bonnie-and-Clyde killing spree keeps you watching.
Some may criticize the film for being unrealistic. It certainly seems as if Frank and Roxy would be apprehended relatively quickly – particularly after killing everyone in a movie theater with the exception of a moviegoer thoughtful enough to silence her cell phone. But an element of fantasy is needed for satire as dark as "God Bless America." It provides the distance that makes it easier to laugh at what’s on the screen. It also makes it easier to hear the criticisms that hit close to home.
Goldthwait knows when to keep things grounded in reality as well. It appears as if Frank’s first murder will be committed with all the style and flash we’ve come to expect from movie violence. It even has Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” as its soundtrack. But the murder actually turns into a fumbling, awkward affair. Roxy also requires some target practice before she can hit the broad side of a barn. Most important, Goldthwait shows how this killing can turn victims into martyrs, no matter how loathsome they are to Frank and Roxy.
It’s also worth mentioning Goldthwait’s skillful use of Alice Cooper’s music throughout the movie. Along with “School’s Out,” he uses the lesser-known “Hello Hooray” to great effect in a dream sequence. “I Never Cry” is also the perfect selection for the movie’s final scene and end credits. Roxy even gives a memorable rant about Alice’s influence on music that will surely please his fans.
"God Bless America" certainly doesn’t match Goldthwait’s superb "World’s Greatest Dad," a film that had a lot to say about death, fame and parenting by telling the story of a father covering up the truth about his intolerable son’s suicide. It also falls short of "Sleeping Dogs Lie," which thoughtfully examined relationships and honesty through the tale of a woman confessing an experiment with bestiality to her fiancé. But "God Bless America" is a worthy addition to Goldthwait’s body of work, which always seems to have something thought-provoking to say.
J.K. Eisen writes about entertainment and the world around him. He lives in the Deep South.
Previous Posts by This Author: A "Hunger" For Death and Ratings