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Movie Review: Uneven, Sloppy GOD BLESS AMERICA Still Packs a Potent Punch

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Logic dictates that I should dislike God Bless America more than I do.  Filmmaker Bobcat Goldthwait’s (yes, that Bobcat Goldthwait) bloody satire is too loud, too scruffy, and way too heavy-handed – it’s the kind of movie where the characters are less people than they are mouthpieces for Goldthwait’s social grievances.  In its analysis of contemporary American culture’s evils, God Bless America makes its points early and often; by the twenty-five-minute mark, we’re already retracing our footsteps.

And yet…

I responded to the damn thing, warts and all.  God Bless America might send its message with the subtlety of a flying mallet, but it’s still a message that needs to be told.  As Goldthwait sees it, America is a crass, funhouse-mirror version of its former glories.  Celebutante culture has superseded our great artists and thinkers; we now prefer to watch – and then discuss – opportunists debasing themselves on Jersey Shore/American Idol/The Real Housewives of F—k You/Your Own Selection Here.  Our political discourse is no better.  Rationed arguments have fallen the way of the dodo, with the default mode for pundits on both sides of the aisle set to “attack.”  Nobody thinks.  Nobody ponders.  Nobody compromises.  It’s shrill, ad hominem warfare infecting our society through the guise of “ideology” and “entertainment,” and it’s making us both dumber and (here’s Goldthwait’s biggest problem) meaner.

Let’s face it: when the show’s that rancid, you almost excuse a guy who wants to start blasting away at the audience.

That’s God Bless America, in a nutshell.  Suburban sadsack Frank Murdock (Joel Murray, younger brother of Bill) lives a life of quiet desperation, getting it at both ends from a culture that he can’t stand and a family (ex-wife, ungrateful child) that doesn’t want him.

And then: the lightning bolt.  He goes to the doctor for a routine checkup, only to find he has an inoperable brain tumor.

Frank considers suicide for about five minutes, but right before he can punch his own ticket, one of those shrewish teenage harpies dominating MTV’s “reality” programming slate refocuses his murderous energies.  Frank kills the girl and gains two things: new purpose, and Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), a sixteen-year-old whack-job who spurs him into a cross-country slaughter.  Tea Party activists, right-wing pundits, religious zealots, even people that talk and text at the movies: they all make Frank and Roxy’s hit list.

First things first: this plays out as way less disturbing than it sounds.  Goldthwait wants to tap into the same subversive anger that made Taxi Driver and Super so compelling, but he has no interest in scaring away viewers with the violence, which is simultaneously graphic and cartoony (people bleed in grand, phony, CGI spurts).  Furthermore, whatever plane of reality God Bless America occupies, it isn’t this one.  Frank and Roxy’s spree has a curious, airless quality.  The cops take forever to show up (and when they do, they’re largely ineffective), the killing unfolds with deadpan understatement, and the victims often opt in favor of waiting around to get shot instead of fleeing for the hills.

Hell, sometimes, they even engage their killers – when Frank and Roxy go after a Bill O’Reilly-esque blowhard, the two sides enter a long debate about the ethics of their respective “methods,” and this happens well after our heroes first shoot the O’Reilly proxy first.  It’s unrealistic, and it should be.  Goldthwait ensures that we understand the social violation at hand, that we see it play out, that we realize how unrepentant the perpetrators are in the face of sudden death.  As blunt-force polemics go, this one is weirdly effective; Goldthwait sets an opposing argument up, and he retorts with a hail of gunfire.

As a movie….well, this strategy is more problematic.  Plot melts away in favor of provocation/murder/provocation/murder, and thus God Bless America feels longer than its 104 minutes.  Much of the middle forty minutes feels especially aimless, as Frank and Roxy amble from murder to murder, and Tara Lynne Barr’s grating, overly broad turn as Roxy doesn’t help.  She never feels like a person – her constant swearing and manic affection for Alice Cooper and Star Trek (do today’s sixteen-year-old kids even know what Alice Cooper and Star Trek are?) make her role as Goldthwait surrogate painfully obvious – and her excitement over the violence never rises above the realm of play-acting; Barr can’t light on the genuine psychosis that made Ellen Page’s similarly styled Super heroine such a kick.

Luckily, she and Goldthwait have the benefit of Joel Murray’s sardonic leading performance.  Murray, who has been doing quietly excellent supporting work in shows like “Mad Men” and “Shameless,” has the role of a lifetime as Frank.  He gives Frank humor (the dry Murray timing is strong with this one – note the wonderful scene where he and Roxy play pretend Russian Roulette) and surprising decency: Frank doesn’t kill for a political agenda or to boost his own status; he just wants people to be a little nicer, a little more considerate to one another, and he can’t understand why a modicum of compassion escapes us.

It’s his commitment that we respond to, and that saves God Bless America.  We want Frank to succeed, despite the flowing blood he causes.  For all the movie’s flaws, Goldthwait gets that part exactly right.  Maybe he’s on to something after all.

Magnolia’s Blu-ray – released under its Magnet auspice – has given the film a sharp digital transfer that minimizes many of the inherent HD film issues.  The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is also sharp and immersive.

Bonus supplements are also quite good.  Goldthwait, Murray, and Barr contribute a terrific commentary, and they return for a nearly half-hour video interview.  The Blu-ray also has an informative behind-the-scenes featurette (“Killing with Kindness”); deleted/alternate versions of the great faux-TV programs from within God Bless America; two minutes of outtakes; and the trailer.  The only stinkers are HDNet’s slim featurette and the not-as-clever as it sounds “Roxy & Frank Music Video.”

God Bless America is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.