“It’s a violent movie about kindness.”
– Bobcat Goldthwait, on his new movie God Bless America.
Bobcat Goldthwait’s new film God Bless America is kind of a mess. It’s awkwardly plotted, outgunned by its ultra-low budget and represents something of a technical step backwards for Goldthwait after delivering two top tier pitch-dark comedies in Sleeping Dogs Lie and World’s Greatest Dad. Most problematically, it’s preachy; a message movie that states its full message right off the bat and spends the rest of its running time restating it in increasingly blunt terms while the main characters monologue their feelings to the audience in prose that often feels like an angry letter to the editor.
“There’s all this vitriol aimed at me, because I’ve said we need to examine ourselves.”
And yet I still liked it, and what’s more, I still think it’s very much worth seeking out. If it ultimately fails at being a cohesive film, it’s because it succeeds at being brutally honest. Less a movie than a righteous scream of primal anger directly from the filmmaker to the audience. Recently, I sat down with that filmmaker, stand-up comedy icon and 1980s cult movie fixture turned lauded indie auteur Bobcat Goldthwait, for a roundtable interview from which the quotes in this article are taken.
“I was in London – there were only a handful of channels, and [inaudible Reality TV series] was on. It was my first exposure to it, and I was just so sad that this was the perception of America overseas.”
“It was also the period when people were going to Town Halls and just screaming and shouting over and over … The President getting shouted down on the floor; and I was like ‘Where are we going?’ This movie’s not political, it’s just so strange how nasty we’ve become.”
The film’s main character (“hero” isn’t precisely apt) is a lonely loser named Frank, played by Goldthwait’s friend and One Crazy Summer co-star Joel Murray. Frank is miserable; he’s divorced, he has no friends at work, and worst of all, both of those things seem to grow out of him being a decent man in an indecent world. He can’t engage with the watercooler crowd at work because he can’t stomach the cruel reality TV shows (represented in the film by pastiches of American Idol, Real Housewives and My Super Sweet 16), fear-mongering cable news punditry and moronic talk radio that seems to dominate everyone else’s life and he’s becoming aware that his own daughter (he doesn’t have custody) is growing into exactly the kind of horrible brat he sees on TV every night.
“There’s no more discourse any more. People just attack and bash the other side.”
“The sensational nature of where we are and who we are … there really isn’t any more thought.”
Over the course of a day, Frank is fired for inadvertently triggering a sexual harassment charge and informed by his doctor that his migraine headaches are actually a fatal brain tumor. His depression hits critical mass and he aims to take his own life, but then he doesn’t.
“I think Frank is a moral man acting very amorally.”
“Joel Murray insists that I’m Frank. My wife thinks I’m Frank. I hope I’m not Frank.”
His killing hand is stayed by simultaneously watching a teenaged reality star unload on her parents for buying her the wrong luxury car and receiving a too-similar wailing phonecall from his daughter (she’s furious to have been given a Blackberry instead of an iPhone). Frank has a moment of clarity: He doesn’t need to die … they, the reality stars, the bigoted political pundits and especially all the rude, callous “ordinary folks” who make their existence possible, need to die!
“I didn’t ‘satirize’ these people, it’s all just based on stuff I actually saw. They say I’m ‘attacking’ these groups, but I was just flipping around [the TV] and there was this guy shouting in front of a picture of The President with a [Hitler] mustache next to Stalin! And I’m like ‘whoa, okay’ …”
“People want to blame one side or the other. I don’t blame the right, or the left, or Hollywood … I’m blaming our appetite for this stuff.”
And, yeah, that’s pretty much the entire movie. Frank steals a car and takes off on a cross-country killing spree, in which a broad set of targets representing people and things that Bobcat Goldthwait doesn’t like are marched out to be violently blown away. Tea Party protestors, Fox News-style TV pundits, people who use cell phones at the movies, Westboro Baptist-esque anti-gay groups, people who double park and many, many others meet brutal ends. The quirky nature of the presentation is supposed to clue us in that this is all meant with winking irony, but there’s no mistaking the relish with which the bad eggs get gleefully smashed.
“I saw a Tea Party sign – a popular Tea Party sign – and it says ‘I came un-armed, this time.’ So I’m saying ‘I see you’re crazy, and I RAISE your crazy.'”
“[Westboro Baptist Church] said ‘You would love to kill Rev. Phelps!’ I said, ‘No, it’s a movie – I just wish he was nice. He should read some of that stuff in the Bible, instead he uses the Bible like Kim Kardashian uses her ass.'”
Frank is joined in his quest by a teenage girl named Roxy (Tara Lynn Barr) who witnesses his first hit and eggs him on to more. It’s an interesting performance from Barr, but Roxy represents a set of problems the film can’t quite work around, starting with only seeming to exist so Frank has someone to trade monologue with. There’s a twist to her story that most will see coming right away, while the film feels overly self-conscious of the obvious question mark of their relationship and chooses to deal with it via overcompensation. Early on, Frank rants to her about his disgust for the media’s sexualization of young girls and later a shady guy they meet on the road assumes Frank is molesting her and congratulates him on his catch leading Frank to strangle him to death.
“Most comedies, they shoot and shoot and actors ad lib, then they cut it down … try to find some theme so at the end it can say ‘best friends are really for life’ or some bull****.'”
Roxy also sets off what has (strangely, given it doesn’t involve anyone being killed) become one of the film’s most controversial sequences when she launches into a rant against the movie Juno and its writer Diablo Cody – whom she calls “the first stripper whose problem is too much self-esteem.” According to Goldthwait, the sentiment (and a lot of Roxy’s character) are derived from his own daughter.
“My daughter is really funny, and now whenever she says something funny people go ‘Oh, you’re like Juno!’ And she tells me ‘Dad, I want to stab them right in the throat when they call me Juno! I hate that f***in’ movie …'”
“Someone said ‘You’ve got to cut that line about Diablo Cody.’ So I said ‘Oh, really?’ and I put in more.”
The film also feels a bit too worried about being perceived as coming from a political perspective other than “we should be more civil.” When it comes time to kill the O’Reilly/Beck-style TV pundit, Frank takes a moment to assure him that he actually agrees with some of his politics, he just can’t get down with the hate. Roxy, on the other hand, does want to punish him for his ideology and then angrily demands to know what exactly Frank agreed with him about (“Less gun control, of course!”)
“So, once [certain websites] finished ripping me apart, I went ‘Well, I’m never going to win these people over.’ They need people like me to hate, because that’s what they do. Bill O’Reilly’s not interested in change, he’s not a reporter, he’s not an elected official, he’s just selling this distraction.”
“It’s like you’re not even allowed to criticize America. They say ‘Why don’t you go to Syria!?’ I’m like ‘Yeah, man, there’s a lot of horrible stuff done in other countries, but why don’t we try to live up to the potential America can be?'”
Frank and Roxy’s ultimate target turns out to be the film’s version of American Idol, which Roxy hates on principal and Frank wants to punish for what he views as the cruel exploitation of a William Hung-style contestant who appears to be mentally challenged. But when it becomes clear that said contestant is a willing participant in his own humiliation, every bit as shallow and fame obsessed as “all the rest,” well, you don’t expect a story like this to have a happy ending, do you?
“William Hung came on the [Jimmy] Kimmel show when I was directing it, and [workers] were telling me ‘Hung is such a pain in the ass, he’s f***ing difficult!’ I’m all ‘What?’ I was fascinated by that, there were things William Hung would or wouldn’t do, it made me go ‘Wow, everybody’s corrupt.'”
It feels strange to find myself liking a film with so many clear problems, but in the end the passion overcomes (most) of its deficiencies. God Bless America is the movie equivalent of outsider art; it’s unpolished, obvious and born of naked emotion. But what you’re seeing is an honest window into its creator’s psyche for good or ill, and I find that pretty damn interesting, even if I don’t necessarily share the entirety of Goldthwait’s ironic fantasy of gunning down society’s rude and abusive.
It’s a messy movie, but it’s definitely an intriguing one and intriguing tends to be in short supply in the summer months. You may love it, you may hate it, but you’ll still be thinking about it when it’s over.
“This movie isn’t wish fulfillment. If it was wish fulfillment, they’d be blowing up Hollywood studios, not a bunch of dumb kids on a show.”
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.