It’s tempting to say that God Bless America, the latest from the estimable writer-director Bobcat Goldthwait, is a merciless satire, holding our debased culture in front of a funhouse mirror. But it isn’t a funhouse mirror; it’s just a mirror. The debasement on its airwaves isn’t some Ow My Balls-style future Idiocracy, but rather a straightforward reflection of what’s already present. As Frank, the film’s mad-as-hell antihero, flips through the channels, the names of specific shows have changed, along with a few minor details, but the references are clear: three judges mocking a tuneless dweeb on American Superstarz; a reality-TV star whipping a used tampon at a rival (shades of the pooping incident on Flavor Of Love); a Sean Hannity-like gasbag mocking a Cindy Sheehan type (“Just because she lost her son in the war…”); a spoiled teenager blasting her parents for not getting her an Escalade for her 16th birthday.
All of these things have happened on television. The key point about God Bless America is that it’s extreme but not exaggerated, a dark comedy that indulges—and questions—a violent, misanthropic fantasy about laying waste to the cultural landscape while staying grounded in a recognizable reality. In other words, Goldthwait isn’t doing the satirical equivalent of shooting ducks in a barrel here, though his recreations of televised stupidity do offer a funny twinge of recognition. What interests him more is how we live in that culture, particularly those who are alienated by it. If we’re not engaged in the national conversation over the latest in sports news (“If he plays that good with one testicle, maybe the whole team should get cancer”) or entertainment (“I don’t care how many foreigners she adopts, I just don’t like Angelina Jolie”), the world can seem like a lonely place.
Borrowing bits and pieces from Network, Bonnie And Clyde, and Taxi Driver, God Bless America takes off on a honey of a premise: An angry middle-aged man—divorced, recently unemployed, and just informed he has an inoperable brain tumor—decides to murder one of those whiny brats on a My Super Sweet 16-like reality show. In the process, he realizes the daydreams of many who have sat slack-jawed in front of their TV sets, wishing harm on the entitled imbeciles who crave their 15 minutes, as well as the outlets that give them a forum. Had Goldthwait just stopped there, however, God Bless America would be thin broth, a feature-length pander to its audience’s above-it-all attitude. But there’s a point at which the fantasy sours and the film becomes more about his reaction to the culture than the culture itself.
Best known for playing Freddie Rumsen, the woefully outdated, hard-drinking pitchman on Mad Men, Joel Murray brings the ideal everyman quality to Frank, a lonely insurance salesman who’s pushed over the edge. After a pile-up of personal and professional disasters leave him jobless, cancer-stricken, and isolated in his shabby apartment, with only his neighbors’ constant bellowing to keep him company, Frank resolves to blow his brains out. But just when he’s about to pull the trigger, reality and reality TV collide in a phone call from his ex-wife, who says their spoiled daughter is in hysterics because she got a Blackberry instead of an iPhone for her birthday. Whether he means to teach the kid a lesson or just take out his frustration, Frank decides that before he dies, one of the little brats from TV is going down, too.
In the process of making that happen, he meets Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), one of the victim’s classmates, who witnesses the murder and cheers him for it. She’s the 16-year-old version of Frank, but with a more expansive lust for violence: She wants to join him in a full-on, cross-country killing spree of all the types of people she hates, from guys who give each other high-fives to “adult women who call their tits ‘the girls.’” Though Roxy’s bloodlust makes him uncomfortable—and her references to her looks make him more discomfited still—Frank lets her tag along on an odyssey that starts at a movie theater with chattering patrons and continues with a bid to protect a William Hung-like crooner from further televised ridicule.
If God Bless America has one satirical thread, it’s in how the media misinterprets or distorts Frank and Roxy’s mêlées: Their bloody answer to the rudeness of movie-theater patrons gets pinned on a violent Vietnam documentary, for example, and they make a “free-speech martyr” out of a right-wing talker. Goldthwait makes the obvious point that an inane culture would respond inanely to its own victimization, but it also serves to undermine the notion that Frank and Roxy are on a heroic quest. Any early feelings of catharsis inspired by watching Frank address his Howard Beale problem with a Travis Bickle solution start to curdle as the film goes along.
But as Frank and Roxy start to lose their handle on their mission of mercy, Goldthwait starts to struggle, too, in making the second and third acts of God Bless America as purposeful as the first. Goldthwait’s primary strength as a writer-director has been in starting with outrageous, high-concept hooks that develop into subtler, more perceptive studies of human nature. His best film, 2006’s Sleeping Dogs Lie, turns on a woman’s confession about an incident of bestiality, but more generally concerns the baggage everyone brings into a relationship. His 2009 follow-up, World’s Greatest Dad, has a man (Robin Williams) coping with his son’s death from autoerotic asphyxiation, but it’s really about a father’s instinct to mold to mold his child’s memory into that of the good person he wished he’d been.
By contrast, God Bless America never achieves the same intimacy, maybe because the concept is finally too big for Goldthwait to bring down to a fully human scale. While the film gains some perspective on their killing spree, Frank and Roxy themselves—individually and as a partnership—remain vaguely defined, somewhere between sweetly paternal and genuinely psychotic, but never as resonant as Goldthwait intends. Perhaps that’s just a consequence of the mission being bigger than they are: They’re cultural jihadists lost to the cause.