Sunday, April 8, 2012

Good Grief, "God Bless America"

The premise of "God Bless America" makes for a great trailer. A sad sack middle aged man named Frank (Joel Murray) discovers that he has terminal cancer, he's been fired from his job, and he has nothing to live for. Moreover, he's plagued by the inescapable dregs of the American media, in the form of braying political pundits, soulless talent competitions, and entitled teenage princesses who melt down when their parents buy them the wrong car. The last one inspires Frank to take a road trip and put the offending brat out of everyone's misery with a bullet to the head. Soon he's on a cross-country rampage with a spunky teenage girl cohort named Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), gunning down every hatemonger they can find, with America's favorite nationally televised singing competition in their sights for a final showdown.

Sounds pretty fun, doesn't it? Well, yes and no. While the film delivers a little catharsis with every new kill – I especially enjoyed Frank and Roxy picking off rude theatergoers and running over homophobic protesters – the joy is fleeting. Frank is not some righteous crusader, but a deeply sad and misanthropic individual with a very skewed worldview. He's zeroed in on one thing that he believes is wrong with the world, and it's the meanness and selfishness of everything being broadcast on television and the radio. He sees it poisoning the behavior of everyone around him, from his awful neighbors to his own spoiled daughter. And pretty soon it becomes apparent that the point of "God Bless America" is not the violence or the mayhem, but giving writer and director Bobcat Goldthwait a platform to rant about the state of American popular culture.

Frank gets multiple monologues that are painfully didactic and unoriginal. He rails against "American Idol." He disabuses Roxy of the notion that all adult men are attracted to teenage girls. He pleads for a return to civility and decency, using over the top violence to get people to listen to him. Frank is a sympathetic figure, but also a terrible hypocrite, and the plot indulges him shamelessly, ensuring that he gets away with a staggering number of major crimes. Roxy's even worse. She has an endless list of people she'd like to wipe off the face of the earth for fairly minor faults. The anarchic look of glee on her face when she contemplates murdering everyone who has committed a pop culture sin is pretty disturbing. And her impassioned, out-of-nowhere declaration of her love for the music of Alice Cooper makes it pretty damn obvious that she was written with the sensibilities of a middle-aged man.

The film would have had more impact if it sent up these two, revealing the inherent flaws in their approach to the world, or maybe having them caught up in the very media circus that they despise. Instead, they end up playing out all the odd couple clich├ęs of an older man on an unexpected road trip with a runaway teenage girl. And I'm sorry to say that they don't do them very well. Joel Murray and Tara Lynne Barr try their best, but it was never clear how they'd developed any kind of meaningful connection, or why the audience would have any reason to care about what happened to them. At times the contrivances around the two border on the ridiculous. Roxy tells a very obvious lie to get Frank to take her with him on the killing spree, and her presence at the finale makes no sense.

I admire Goldthwait for getting a film like this made, and agree with many of the sentiments behind it. However, I frequently see discussions online that contain all the same complaints, all the same fantasies of doing away with the Rush Limbaughs and the Fred Phelps and the "American Idols" of the world, along with those who empower them. They usually end the same way, with everyone agreeing that the status quo sucks, and affirming each other's wishful thinking. And that's what "God Bless America" is in the end – a stack of complaints about the way the world is going, trying to provoke its audience into self-awareness and outrage, but not really adding anything new to the conversation. And it doesn't hit hard enough to leave much of a lasting impression, the satire dulled by an overwhelming lack sense of sadness and futility. What's the point of Frank continuing his rampage if the movie itself acknowledges that all killing the hatemongers won't change a thing in the end?

"God Bless America" may be an attack on the American media, but its pandering and its sensationalism smack of the worst of the same media's excesses.
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