Technology with attitude

Darkly Funny "God Bless America" Gives Society Middle Finger

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Have you ever felt like the world we live in is headed down the tubes and ridding itself of kindness and value? It’s a red flag in our American culture when TV consists of trash, whether it be rich, spoiled housewives, entitled girls on their sweet 16 birthdays, or the celebration of tone-deaf singers who actually think they possess talent. Written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait (2009’s “World’s Greatest Dad”), “God Bless America” is a risky, caustic, perversely funny sick joke of a burnt-black dark comedy that blows up good taste and takes many cultural targets hostage. Reminding me of 1967’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” 1973’s “Badlands,” and 1993’s “Falling Down” from a narrative perspective, the film is also a flippant comment—no, rant—on shock value, schadenfreude, our attachment to technology, and the lack of substance and civilization in popular culture. It’s pretty much all bite without being soulless.

Fed up with the discourteous couple and their crying baby next door, middle-aged Frank (Joel Murray) has had it up to here. He suffers migraines and insomnia, sitting in front of the boob tube where every other channel is a shallow celebrity show. Divorced and the father of a bratty young daughter who hates staying at his house, he dreams of blowing all the rude people’s brains out, which is key to realizing he’s no longer normal. To make matters worse, Frank is fired for harassment from his office job of eleven years and then finds out he has a tumor.

Right before he decides to take his own life, he begins watching a snotty, entitled 16-year-old girl named Chloe on a My Super Sweet 16-style reality show throw a tantrum over receiving the wrong car for her super sweet 16 present. Subsequently, Frank wants to kill all of the rude, annoying people that “deserve” it. Spying on Chloe before he kills her, a fellow classmate named Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr) spots Frank and ends up becoming his unlikely accomplice. She has no friends, loves Alice Cooper, and goes against the mainstream, so Roxy decides to be a spree killer with Frank. “With so many horrible people in the world who should be taking a big dirt nap, why quit now?” Roxy asks her new shooting teacher.

As dark as the material may be, “God Bless America” is darkly funny in spades. The premise would seem to play as morally reprehensible and off-putting and overly pleased with itself, but it’s all about the execution. In one scene of collateral damage, Frank and Roxy take in a movie, which gets interrupted by some chatty audience members on their cell phones and throwing popcorn, so the two get a little gun-happy. They even take out a guy that takes up two parking spaces. Those watching will get a vicarious thrill. Not far off from Mike Judge’s underseen 2006 satire “Idiocracy,” Goldthwait’s film satirizes cultural anti-intellectualism, primarily from dumbed-down reality TV and a sense of entitlement. The hit program “American Superstarz” that Frank despises is obviously a mock-up of “American Idol,” with intentionally over-the-top parodies of the three judges and bad performers. The show stands a particular contestant, the William Hung-esque Steve Clark (Aris Alvarado), up for ridicule, but Frank won’t have it. There’s also a Glenn Beck-esque self-promoter (Regan Burns) with politics that Frank mostly likes but wishes he were nicer. On the other hand, shooting down the TV personality is no question for Roxy.

Joel Murray, brother of Bill, perfectly embodies the sad-sack Frank. And he actually makes Frank sympathetic and his personal predicament understandable, even if he takes his frustration to the Nth degree. Killing people is his extreme catharsis. Tara Lynne Barr, resembling a young-again Dominique Swain, is a fresh find, never laying on Roxy’s perky precociousness with a trowel. She’s such a hyper-articulate waif that Frank at one point calls her Juno, which sets up a ballsy joke about adding “Juno” screenwriter Diablo Cody (“the only stripper that suffers from too much self-esteem”) to their hit list. Goldthwait also makes mention of the sexual undertones in the Frank-Roxy relationship, but never crosses that line. It’s “Lost in Translation” platonic: Frank and Roxy are kindred spirits, not “Natural Born Killers”-type lovers on the lam. Roxy isn’t objectified, and in fact, she even asks Frank if she’s pretty and he refuses to answer, ranting about our culture sexualizing female minors.

Goldthwait does make a good point, but the film doesn’t really go anywhere. It makes its point with incisiveness and keeps driving it into the ground until its uncompromising but inevitable conclusion that would’ve been more ironic had the film been made decades before. Frank even makes a third-act speech on the stage of “American Superstarz,” but it’s unnecessary and too on the nose. The easily offended should definitely keep a wide berth, but even at its blackest, “God Bless America” provokes nervous laughter through your teeth. It should also resonate to anyone who shares director Goldthwait’s blood boiling over the current state of American culture. Or is it elitist misanthropy? The film offers enough wild inspiration to spawn any reaction.

100 min., rated R.
Grade: B

* Opening in limited theaters and available on iTunes and Video On Demand platforms