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Review: 'God Bless America' conveys a powerful message (somewhat redundantly)

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Bobcat Goldthwait's GOD BLESS AMERICA

Rating:
Star3
Star
Star
Star
Star

Bobcat Goldthwait-- who spent the bulk of the 80's and early 90's screaming his way through the Police Academy franchise-- was reborn a few years back as a director of pitch-black comedies. Both Sleeping Dogs and World's Greatest Dad (particularly the latter) were two of the best dark comedies of the decade. Would Goldthwait score a threepeat with his latest film, an incendiary attack on TV, celebrities, and society called God Bless America? Find out below, my gentle Examiner readers...

Most people associate the name "Bobcat Goldthwait" with the thunderous migraines they've been nursing since the mid-80's. Back then, Goldthwait was a breakout comedian whose screeching voice, bizarre enunciation, and sweaty demeanor set him apart from the rest of the comedians who defined the decade: on one side, you had an army of hacks in sportcoats, jeans, and loosely-knotted ties; on the other, you had Tiny Tim ("the guy who plays the ukelele and whose singing voice sounds like animals dying"), Gallagher ("the guy who smashes fruit and goes on to become an incorrigible racist three decades in the future"), and—dwarfing them all, if only in volume—Bobcat Goldthwait ("guy who's always shrieking in the Police Academy" movies).

Yes, the 80's sucked just as bad as you've always heard, and—inevitably, justifiably—many of these former celebrities went on to fall into oblivion's deepest, darkest cracks. These flash-in-the-pan comedians might be showbiz ghost stories (“…and if you happen to be standing inside the Shermer, Illinois “Chuckle Hut” at 4am on the coldest night of the year, you might still hear the singular sound of an oversized mallet smashing a watermelon!”) if anyone remembered they ever graced a stage.

But again, Goldthwait sets himself apart from that crowd: dude’s spent the last half-decade defying the odds by becoming one of indie film's most interesting directors of comedy. The distinct voice that Goldthwait’s displayed in films like Sleeping Dogs and World’s Greatest Dad is kind of amazing, pitch-black and mercilessly unapologetic. This voice is undoubtedly preferable to the one he came to be associated with in the 80’s, and—if there’s any justice in the world—it’ll bethe one he’s remembered for.

Now, Sleeping Dogs was great, but World’s Greatest Dad (starring Robin Williams, of all people) was something else entirely. One of the greatest “black comedies” ever made, it’s good enough to make you forgive the last decade of Williams’ career, and proved once and for all that the talent glimpsed in Sleeping Dogs wasn’t just a fluke Goldthwait had the goods, and from there on out fans of subversive comedy would be very keen to see what he’d come up with next.

And so, when it was announced that his next film would be titled God Bless America, star the criminally underused Joel Murray, and target the tragically idiotic pop culture landscape of a post-American Idol America, there was much rejoicing. This sounded like something special, and even though the film’s logline (a terminally-ill middle-aged dude targets reality TV stars and useless “celebrities” while on a murderous road trip with a precocious tweener) sounded like it could get tediously preachy faster than you could say “Kim Kardashian”, most kept the faith: after all, World’s Greatest Dad.

When I learned Goldthwait’s latest had made the lineup for this year’s SXSW Film Festival, I was jazzed: I immediately added the film to my “must-see” list. But before I had a chance to see the flick, I spoke to a number of people (people, it should be noted, whose opinions I have enormous respect for, like the brilliant Film Crit Hulk) talked me out of making the film a priority. I was bummed enough by the things I was hearing about God Bless America to pass on the film’s final screening at South-By, but last week—when I noticed Magnet had put the film OnDemand—I decided to cross my fingers and give it a shot. After all, World’s Greatest Dad.

Unfortunately, I ended up agreeing with most of the complaints I’d heard during the film’s run at SXSW.

First of all, the Bobcat that wrote and directed God Bless America seems both angrier and less-focused than the Bobcat that gave us Sleeping Dogs and World’s Greatest Dad. Like those films, America has a lot of pointed things to say about human nature, society, and relationships; unlike those films, America explicitly communicates its “point” right up-front, laying things out in a monologue (delivered by Joel Murray’s Frank) that feels a bit too much like a mission statement. This seems to indicate that—if anything—Goldthwait’s even more focused this time around, and that’d be true…if the film had more to say beyond this “mission statement”.

Goldthwait script asks, “What’s the point of having a civilization if we’re not going to be civil to one another?” and “Why is everyone so mean all the time?” and “Why are we embracing talentless fools as ‘celebrities’, turning imbeciles into stars?” These are all questions that could use thoughtful answers, to be sure, and they’re precisely the kind of questions that might be best explored via dark comedy. But once these questions are introduced in Frank’s big opening speech, you’ve heard about 95% of what the film has to say. I kept waiting for the film to make a different point—or, at the very least, a few additional ones—but I never really felt like it introduced one to match those introduced up-front.

After that speech, we watch as—in rapid succession—Frank loses his job, gets diagnosed with a terminal illness (well, a tumor, but you know what I mean), and decides to take his own life. At the last minute, however, Frank decides he’s going to take a few people with him: specifically, some of the pervasively-rude, inexplicably famous, untalented dirtbags he ranted about earlier in the film. His first target: Chloe, star of a “My Super Sweet 16”-style reality show. Chloe’s a spoiled brat who goes nuclear on her parents when they get her the wrong car for her birthday, and she’s presented horribly enough that we can’t help but root for Frank when he sets out to gun her down.

This is where the film kicks off in earnest. Frank hunts Chloe down, crossing paths with a tweener named Roxy in the process, and when the two realize they’re both murderously disdainful of the world around them—kindred spirits, really—they decide to spend Frank’s final days together, hunting down reality stars, killing people who talk at the movies (in a sequence that’s certain to end up screening before films at the Alamo Drafthouse), and generally giving society what-for. On paper, I admit that this sounds pretty entertaining.

But besides the whole “not really having much more to say beyond what’s said in the film’s opening” thing, there’s also the “Roxy doesn’t really seem necessary to the plot” thing, or the “this movie sure picks some obvious targets” thing, or the “Oh, great, another comedy that climaxes with a game-show” thing. All of this could be forgiven if it weren’t for that first thing—really, it kneecaps the entire film—but, well, there it is. Frank and Roxy end up on the set of an American Idol-style show, Frank delivers another speech, there’s a gunfight, roll credits. When it ended, my first thought was, “That’s it?”

All of that said—and I realize I just laid out a number of complaints—I don’t think God Bless America is a “bad movie”. It’s simply not as “good” (whatever that means) as Goldthwait’s previous efforts, and it feels like it simply doesn’t deliver on the possibilities inherent in its premise.

But enough negativity, let’s take a moment to focus on what works: for one thing Joel Murray clearly relishes the chance to headline a film, and he knocks it out of the park as a result. His performance alone really does make the film worth seeing. As the homicidal Roxy, newcomer Tara Lynn Barr is also damn impressive, making the whole thing look effortless in a way that virtually guarantees that we’ll be seeing more of her. And, y’know, despite its relative shortcomings, Goldthwait’s script really does contain a good number of savagely effective moments (and a few not-so-effective, as in the scene where Goldthwait attacks…Diablo Cody?), and the film—on a whole—looks much cleaner and smoother than his earlier efforts (he can make zero-budget look like at least half-a-mil).

There are moments where you’ll laugh, and there are moments where you’ll nod your head in sad agreement with the film. There are moments where—just as in Goldthwait’s previous films—you’ll recognize something uncomfortably familiar onscreen, and moments (specifically in that opening screed) where the script really nails its message. But the film’s other moments are a bit too shaggy, a bit too “first draft”, and a bit too half-baked to elevate God Bless America to the gloriously dark heights of Goldthwait’s previous film. That’s slightly disappointing, I suppose, but even if it doesn’t feel like the homerun that his previous film was, God Bless America is still worth seeking out as long as you temper your expectations beforehand.

Let’s hope that Goldthwait hears what critics are saying about his latest, that he internalizes that feedback, and that when he returns—and, man, I’m already pumped for whatever he does next—it turns out that God Bless America was a learning experience for him. He’s already proven he’s got the goods, and he’s proven absolutely fearless when it comes to dark comedy. Even if his latest didn’t blow me away as much as I’d hoped for, I’m still confident that—in the end—Goldthwait’s second act as a director of indie film’s darkest comedies will feature far more “hits” than “misses” (or even “just-misses”).

My Grade? B-

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