In fact, the movie’s leading man, played by Joel Murray, looks and sounds very Goldthwait-esque at times. Frank Murdoch, a cubicle drone for the Syracuse firm Mutual of Onondaga, is quietly seething about what’s wrong with the world. He has other issues, such as an unfriendly ex-wife and their bratty daughter, plus jerky neighbors and co-workers who groove to morning-drive morons named Taint and Jeff, not to mention incessant migraines and insomnia.
Yet most of the time Frank is plenty annoyed that brain-dead reality-TV series, with their focus on stupid people, and a certain 24-hour right-wing news channel, which zeroes in on the lunatic political fringe, are to blame for America’s lack of civil discourse. An early sequence has Frank channel-surfing through various showcases of the worst in reality-TV behavior, including a documentary on ex-Marine sharpshooter turned sniper Charles Whitman (uh-oh).
Frank will soon lose his job thanks to human-resources machinations and also receive a diagnosis for a brain tumor—both on the same day, no less. So after another evening of channel-surfing in which a drunk and suicidally despondent Frank lingers on a TV series devoted to the whiny self-centeredness of a spoiled Virginia teen named Chloe (Maddie Hasson), he finally snaps. Frank takes out a gun that he keeps in a locked box on a very high shelf (along with some dog tags and soldier patches, subtle hints at his hidden past that is never mentioned) and proceeds to take action. After all, why kill yourself when you can off others?
So while stalking Chloe, Frank meets wanna-be teen rebel Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), an eyewitness to the homicidal rage who nevertheless wants to be Frank’s willing accomplice for more nastiness. And because she tells Frank about her life in a broken home, the schlumpy sad sack agrees to become her platonic partner-in-crime.
At one point in which Frank and Roxy buy clothes at a goodwill store, with Roxy wearing a beret, even Goldthwait is helping lazy reviewers by calling attention to his characters’ Bonnie-and-Clyde relationship. Actually, Goldthwait is taking some expressive cues from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and that film’s Travis Bickle-Iris tandem. Goldthwait’s audacious opening shot, for instance, which travels across the next-door neighbors in a duplex to Frank’s bedroom, recalls the similar from-the-rafters visual that caps Taxi Driver’s climactic bloodbath. Like Scorsese’s 1976 flick, there’s even a scene involving Frank’s interaction with a supplier of illegal weapons who is selling “a gun pupu platter.” (Scorsese, by the way, is a big fan of Goldthwait’s directorial debut Shakes the Clown.)
As with Goldthwait’s previous dark comedies, God Bless America will likely polarize viewers, with some citing that Goldthwait’s going middle-age crazy and others in the yahoo crowd enjoying the Death Wish–level body-count fantasies. Frank’s frequent rants also come from the Bobcat DNA. “I hate my neighbors,” Frank says during the opening voice-over. “The constant cacophony of stupidity that pours from their apartment is absolutely soul-crushing.” To a co-worker who enjoys the humiliation of a contestant on an American Idol-type show, Frank declares, “It’s not nice to laugh at someone who’s not all there. It’s the same type of freak show distraction that comes along every time a modern empire is collapsing. Why have a civilization anymore if we are no longer interested in being civilized?”
Goldthwait, never the most cuddly of standup comics, could always be counted on for thought-provoking humor. So the comic gist of God Bless America seems to be a catalog of everything that has bugged Bobcat since Y2K. If the American Idol gibes aren’t exactly up to the minute, the underlying point just might be that the series is now such a cultural institution that Fox-TV could not exist without its hefty ratings. The Fox News Channel isn’t going away anytime soon, either, nor the current rightward view of the GOP as orchestrated by architect Karl Rove, and much of our lemming-like country has simply shrugged its collective shoulders and given in to lowest-common denominator entertainment and simpleminded politics.
Still, Goldthwait doesn’t forget to bring the funny, with an abundance of wisecracks and sight gags, such as a cretin who pays the fatal price for parking in two spaces. His indie-flick exuberance keeps the longish God Bless America from getting too bleak and discomforting, even when the movie has to slow down for Frank and Roxy’s soapbox soliloquies, which only shows that they’re really made for each other despite the age difference. Speaking of that, there is a dissenting comment regarding Woody Allen’s private life, yet Allen and Goldthwait share something in common: Both directors get to make whatever kinds of movies they want.
No matter how cynical Goldthwait’s films can get, he always manages to mine empathy from his bizarre characters, including the teenager from hell in World’s Greatest Dad and the sweetheart emotional center who performs unthinkable acts on a pooch in Sleeping Dogs Lie. Joel Murray, in a One Crazy Summer reunion with Goldthwait, has to bear the brunt of delivering Frank’s rages in long, single camera takes, but he always maintains a put-upon likability. And Tara Lynne Barr’s spark-plug turn as Roxy presents the screen’s most formidable foulmouthed adolescent since Chloe Grace Moretz in Kick-Ass.
Goldthwait also gets by with a little help from his friends. On the fringes, viewers will note Bishop Grimes best bud Tom Kenny (in his first on-screen death scene!), plus Goldthwait’s Unhappily Ever After co-star Geoff Pierson as Frank’s boss and Sleeping Dogs Lie’s Melinda Page Hamilton as Frank’s divorced spouse. The director also shot some quick scenes last July around Clinton Square, with former Generic Comics player Leslie Noble getting in a quick cameo at the State Tower Building’s elevator lobby. (And a very special thanks to the Syracuse Central New York Film Office for not letting the Syracuse New Times know about Goldthwait and crew’s location work last summer.)
With God Bless America and, before that, World’s Greatest Dad,
Goldthwait seems to be taking the titles of his movies from coffee-mug
slogans found on a Spencer Gifts shelf. But since this writer-director
still has plenty to say about the current human condition, don’t bet on
his next movie being titled I’m With Stupid.