They say it never rains, it pours, and fortysomething Frank (Joel Murray) is currently in the midst of a torrential downpour, existentially speaking. Separated from his wife and daughter, who has turned into a spoiled brat, he has moved into an apartment with paper-thin walls, next to “a couple of Neanderthals who, instead of a baby, decided to give birth to some kind of nocturnal civil defense air-raid siren that goes off every fuckin’ night like it’s Pearl Harbor.” He spends his evenings sat in front of the TV, flipping channels, aghast at the depths to which American society has sunk in the name of entertainment. Of ‘American Superstarz’, an idiotic American Idol-type show which exploits mentally challenged aspirants for cheap laughs, he says, “It’s the same type of freak show distraction that comes along every time a mighty empire starts collapsing.” Frank is particularly offended by a reality show about a spoiled 16-year-old named Chloe, whose foul mouth, shrill personality, lack of respect and over-inflated sense of entitlement seems to represent everything Frank hates about America. “Why have a civilization any more,” he wonders, “if we are no longer interested in being civilized?”
As miserable as Frank’s life is, however, it’s about to get worse. Shortly after being fired from his job as an insurance clerk, for a minor infringement of the company’s code of conduct, he is told that he has an inoperable brain tumour. Later, apparently inspired by a TV documentary about spree killer Charles Starkweather, Frank decides to give the last days of his life some kind of meaning. Stealing his neighbour’s bright yellow Camaro – emblazoned with bumper stickers bearing such slogans as ‘Slavery, Holocaust, Abortion. Two down, one to go’ – Frank tracks down Chloe, the reality show star he despises so much, and shoots her dead with his old army service revolver. The crime is witnessed by another 16-year-old, Roxy (Tara Lynn Barr), who tracks Frank to the motel where has holed himself up, planning to take his own life, and duly admonishes Frank for wasting the opportunity to take out more of America’s trash. “Why quit now when there are so many other Chloes out there who need to die?”
So begins writer-director Bobcat Goldthwait’s God Bless America, the most gleefully black comedy to appear since, well, possibly since Goldthwait’s last film, World’s Greatest Dad, in which Robin Williams rewrites the story of his son’s suicide, creating a cult around the boy and, vicariously, himself. (Think that’s dark? Try Goldthwait’s lo-fi first feature, Sleeping Dogs, in which a young man struggles to come to terms with the revelation that his fiancée once had sexual relations with their family pet.) Goldthwait, who turned fifty on May 26, is perhaps best known for the high-pitched ‘Yoda on helium’ voice he used to dubious comic effect in several Police Academy films, and on a memorable episode of “The Larry Sanders Show,” which was inspired by an infamous incident in which Goldthwait set fire to a couch on Jay Leno’s chat show. Sleeping Dogs gave Goldthwait’s career a worthy new direction, however, and although it could be argued that World’s Greatest Dad lost its nerve somewhere in the third act, God Bless America is a near-perfect realization of its central premise – a man with nothing to lose goes on a killing spree – which, while not exactly fresh, feels particularly timely and relevant, given the continuing disintegration of American values in the name of exploitative entertainment. It’s a brilliant satire, with enough laugh-out-loud moments to give any Hollywood comedy a run for its money; yet it’s clear Goldthwait isn’t always joking. “America has become a cruel and vicious place,” Frank/Bobcat says. “We reward the shallowest, the dumbest, the meanest and the loudest. We no longer have any common sense of decency. No sense of shame. There is no right and wrong. The worst qualities in people are looked up to and celebrated. We’ve become a nation of slogan-saying, bile-spewing hatemongers. We’ve lost our kindness. We’ve lost our soul.”
Joel Murray, best known as Mad Men’s hapless Fred Rumsen, plays Frank to sad-sack, hangdog perfection, while newcomer Tara Lynn Barr channels a young Christina Ricci in the role of Roxy, who joins Frank on his killing spree, offering suggestions as to who deserves to die next, from “people who high five” to “religious assholes who won’t let gay people get married” to “adult women who call their tits ‘the girls’” – and anyone who talks or texts in a movie theatre. The amusing upshot of all this is that, at some point, almost everyone in the audience will realize they belong on Frank and Roxy’s (s)hit list – perhaps even, if they’re honest, Frank and Roxy themselves.
Satire is supposed to make you laugh in order to make you think, and God Bless America hits both targets dead centre. It might make spree killers out of all of us, but then we probably wouldn’t get to stick around for whatever Bobcat Goldthwait might come up with next – and that really would be a crime. ★★★★★