Today, as I am sure you are well aware, is the 4th of July. And if you live in America, that means it is Independence Day! A day to celebrate all things American. And then some. So, what a perfect way to celebrate American culture than to watch a film which is completely anti-American culture, highlighting all that is wrong within the culture of the world’s wealthiest, and perhaps, most ignorant nation. That seems to be the marketing team’s line of thought when they decided to release Bobcat Goldthwait’s political and social satire in UK cinemas (limited release) on the week which sees the day of independence being celebrated. Rather ironic, but then again, for this film, it is somewhat fitting. If you are familiar with Bobcat, you’ll know that his particular brand of humour holds no punches; it is black in the darkest degree. His films deal with rather awkward subjects (World’s Greatest Dad, being his most recent work) yet makes them rather accessible through the employment of his sharp and observant wit. God Bless America is Bobcat pushing the limits of his bad taste humour, a test which threatens to alienate his audience, but certainly a test that has something to say.
God Bless America follows Frank Murdoch (Joel Murray). Frank is one depressed individual. He lives alone, he is divorced, his spoiled brat of a child won’t give him the time of day and he is sick of how America has let itself fall into a state of idiocracy as a result of pop culture, reality television and moronic radio. Oh, and he also gets fired from his un-fulfilling job as an insurance salesman after an act of kindness towards a female co-worker is misinterpreted as sexual harassment. To make matters even worse for poor old Frank, he is told that he has an inoperable brain tumor and is going to die very soon. More than ready to take his own life, something inside Frank stops him from doing so, or perhaps it was the bitchy rich teenager Chloe on My Sweet Sixteen complaining about her poor imperfect life (boo hoo). It is at this moment that Frank decides to take matters into his own hands and clean up America, by taking out everyone who contributes to the moronic society that America has fallen into. Along the way, he finds a partner in the most unlikely form, a teen-aged girl by the name of Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), who has as much disdain for society as Frank, but no where near as much wisdom. The bizarre duo take their quest on the road, cleaning up America, one jerk at a time.
Bobcat’s last film, the aforementioned World’s Greatest Dad, was a quiet success, gaining a treasured cult following and boasting a subdued and emotional performance from Robin Williams. WGD certainly dealt with uncomfortable issues and expertly concerned itself with the superficial nature of individuals in American society, and explores how far an individual can sell-out their own moral decency. God Bless America takes this satirical perspective on American society and pushes it to full throttle, in terms of its overall message and shocking violence. The film threatens to lose its audience within the early scenes during one of Frank’s fantasies, although you cannot blame Bobcat for starting as he means to go on, as he certainly does not hold back on the violence. The violence in the film may alienate some viewers, as Frank kills people who are certainly unlike-able, but not necessarily bad. However, this is where Bobcat’s comedic skill as a filmmaker comes into play. The violence may be shocking, but it is also incredibly funny, particularly during the first time that Frank commits murder. He wants it to be very cool, collected and organised, but he is frankly rather shit at killing people, with his elaborate scheme clumsily failing, resorting in him simply shooting his victim. Not everyone has this sense of humour, and not everyone will agree that the violence is more acceptable as a result. But this is Bobcat for you, and he’s going to have fun even if you’re not.
However, there is no denying that God Bless America does have a message at its comically bloody centre. It is a warning aimed towards America’s (heck, the world’s) media and pop culture. There was a time when pop culture produced highly esteemed work, the time of Warhol, the buzzing and exciting American literature of the 1920’s. But now, we live in a time where some of the most successful shows are ‘My Super Sweet Sixteen’ and ‘The X-Factor’ in which we see people who lead more privileged lives complain about their so-called hardships and where individuals are ridiculed for the entertainment of millions. I am sure George Orwell turns in his grave every time someone refers to Big Brother in the context of the reality show and not towards his classic novel, 1984. We are simply a dumb-downed generation. Frank is a man who wants to do something about it, in order to spread a message of change; a psychopath with morals so to speak. He does not kill randomly, he kills those who fail to behave like decent human beings. He certainly does not get as much of a kick out of it as Roxy does (seriously, that kid has issues); he sees his task as a service, one in which the consequences do not comply. Murray’s performance of Frank exudes a spirit of moral righteousness with a sweet sympathetic nature, creating a sense that this is a man who simply has had enough and has nothing left to live for, and decides to do something about the elements of existence that, put simply, piss him off. Tara Lynn Barr is a manic delight as Roxy, and it is in the road-trip aspect of the movie that the relationship between these two characters truly develops. It is within these scenes that we gain an understanding of Bobcat’s craft and finesse as a dramatic and comedic writer, leading to some rather awkward, but also rather sweet moments between the Bonnie And Clyde-esque duo.
I would say that I do prefer World’s Greatest Dad over God Bless America; the performances are more affecting, stylistically it is a stronger movie and it is much more subtle in its message. It also felt a lot more original, as this film bears quite a few similarities with James Gunn’s 2010 film Super (which I also highly recommend). Frank’s message, at times, feels very preachy, ranting and heavy handed, and it is in these moments that you miss the quiet, subdued nature of World’s Greatest Dad. But God Bless America is incredibly bold, testing its audience with its content and asking some very large and socially relevant questions. It is a satisfying experience as well, as we all have had moments where we may have wanted to get a gun in order to tell people in the cinema to shut the hell up, or to tell Simon Cowell that he should be nicer to people. And with Frank being a seemingly normal guy who has just suffered a series of unfortunate events, Bobcat does invite us to ask the question; Would we do the same thing if we found ourselves in his situation? Yet, at the same time, it is a comedy, an incredibly dark one at that, but one that has a sharp satirical bite that gives you plenty to chew on.