“Political” films aren’t always about politics. Last year we had Red State and The Ides of March: one, a thriller with a certain ideological slant and the other a drama about the political process, but no particular point of view, left or right. God Bless America (or, as the filmmakers would have it, god bless america), is the ideological sort of movie, although it’s more about culture than politics.
Some have characterised GBA (oh, how I love it when a film title can be abbreviated so succinctly) as liberal or left-wing, and while a number of the targets of protagonists Frank and Roxy’s wrath are conservatives, the basic concept of the “decline of American civilisation” is shared by both ends of the political spectrum (even if the exact details of that decline may vary according to one’s political orientation). Furthermore, at least one early scene—Frank is summarily dismissed from his job on sexual harassment charges—feels like a calculated swipe at the “liberal agenda.” In fact, one might suggest that by making its protagonists allegedly-liberal serial-killers, GBA is actually taking the side of conservatives. It’s always fun to have a film whose ambiguous meaning promotes discussion (=arguments), isn’t it?
God Bless America was written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwaite, a comedian and TV director best known (to me) for his whiney voice and his directorial debut, the marvelously odd Shakes the Clown (1991). In GBA, Goldthwaite incorporates elements of previous “irate killer” movies (Falling Down, for instance); the premise also reminds me of the memorable short story by Jack Ritchie, “All the Rude People,” which also deals with a mortally-ill man who kills “mean people.” However, Goldthwaite then adds absurdist black humour to the mix, which results in an uneven tone.
Frank Murdock (Joel Murray, one of those actors whose name won’t ring a bell but whose face is recognisable from numerous TV and film roles) lives a sad, sad life: he’s divorced (and his spoiled daughter doesn’t want to visit him), lives in painfully close proximity to a boorish, selfish young couple and their howling infant, spends his evenings drinking and watching the vast wasteland of television, loses his job because a female co-worker takes offense at his friendly gestures, then learns his migraine headaches are actually the symptoms of a deadly, inoperable brain tumour.
Overwhelmed with disgust at the state of the nation—“Why have a civilisation any more if we are no longer interested in being civilised?”—Frank contemplates suicide but instead goes on a cross-country murder spree, accompanied by nihilistic teenager Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr, who also looks familiar but has relatively few professional credits). Their victims include reality TV “stars,” teens who talk on cell phones in the cinema, angry right-wing broadcasters, gay-hating church-goers (shades of Red State), et al.
This all plays out in an unrealistic, at times even slapstick manner. There are serious undertones—and even wholly serious scenes—but this isn’t a grim drama in the Falling Down or Red State mode. The killings themselves are depicted in restrained fashion and in a surprisingly ambivalent tone: GBA doesn’t demonise the victims (for the most part) as anything more than mean, selfish, stupid, rude, and annoying people. Frank and Roxy aren’t hunting drug dealers or child rapists or even corrupt public officials, they’re shooting people who take up two parking spaces with a single car. The audience doesn’t necessarily sympathise with the victims, but few if any of them appear to deserve to die just for bad manners and a poor attitude.
Interspersed with the murder scenes are a series of polemic monologues and dialogues delivered by Frank and/or Frank and Roxy. These vary in effectiveness. Some are genuinely angry and justifiable rants about trash television and radio, pointless celebrity, people who are selfish and feel entitled, and so on. Others, however, are merely silly complaints about stupid people who give “high-fives,” or irrelevant asides, such as a long speech extolling Alice Cooper as a musical visionary.
There are some things which really do work, however. The relationship between Frank and Roxy is far more nuanced and effective than, for example, the similar pairing of middle-aged-vigilante-and-hot-teen-girl in Super. Roxy is brash and assertive but repeatedly seeks Frank’s emotional approval, leading to a certain degree of sexual tension between them. Their scenes together are extremely well-written and –performed, even if they are also the setting for many long-winded diatribes about how screwed up things are in America.
The pastiches of trash TV and radio are spot-on: Glenn Beck, TMZ, and American Idol (very slightly disguised) are targets of particular venom, without resorting to much, if any, exaggeration (as if it would even be possible to be much more outrageous than reality). Indeed, while GBA occasionally piles on to make its point—the “Frank’s Bad Day” that begins the movie shoe-horns so much misery and bad luck into a short period of time that it’s almost deliberately ludicrous—the specific events depicted are not unbelievable at all.
GBA is loaded with witty, quotable lines, so Goldthwaite can be forgiven if some of these happen to appear in the middle of a Frank-rant that’s otherwise a deadly serious, bitter attack on the selfishness and stupidity of the American people. For instance, Frank refers to his neighbour’s wailing child as “some kind of nocturnal civil defense air raid siren that goes off every… night like it’s Pearl Harbor,” and Roxy suggests they target Diablo Cody, author of Juno—“she’s the only stripper who suffers from too much self-esteem.” The movie also contains an anti-Glee joke, making two in recent films (the other was in 21 Jump Street)—for some reason it’s cool to just not like that show, I suppose.
As noted earlier, God Bless America doesn’t take a clear partisan political stance. “Culture Wars” is a buzzword (buzzterm, buzzphrase?) often bruited about and generally construed as the conflict between traditional (= conservative) and liberal values, applied to hot-button topics like abortion and gun control. GBA only touches on these sort of issues in passing, and there is no consistent ideological agenda evident in the movie. Even Roxy—who represents the ultra-liberal viewpoint—makes many frivolous suggestions about what sort of people they should kill (Twihards, “people who use the term edgy”), while older and more conservative Frank hates everyone who is “mean,” from faux-Westboro Church anti-gay protestors (another link to Red State) to a self-absorbed teenage girl on a reality TV series.
In one scene, Frank shoots a Glenn Beckian TV host because he’s “mean” and “rude,” stating “I [even] agree with you on some [political] things.” After killing the man (“He just wishes everyone would act nice. I, on the other hand, think your politics are shit.” BANG!) , an outraged Roxy asks Frank, “what part of his politics do you agree with?” and Frank replies, “less gun control, of course.” This illustrates the deliberately ambiguous nature of GBA’s politics, with Roxy playing the radical-left, tree-hugging, feminist who refers to a “court-appointed hillbilly president” (George W. Bush) and “big oil companies,” and Frank as the advocate of reasoned discourse who accepts at least some of a victim’s political beliefs, with the whole sequence capped by a one-liner that defuses the ideological and moral ramifications of what just happened.
God Bless America is well-produced and slickly assembled. The only two performances that matter are those of Murray and Barr, who are excellent. Everyone else is either a shrieking caricature (which is fine) or does a workmanlike job in the straight roles. Familiar faces crop up in cameos, including Goldthwaite’s former stand-up partner Tom (voice of Spongebob Squarepants) Kenny, Larry Miller, Frank (MS3TK) Conniff, and Geoff Pierson (who co-starred in TV’s “Unhappily Ever After” with Goldthwaite in the 1990s).
As a result of its divergent tones, GBA is much less powerful as a drama than it would have been if it were more focused and consistent, and it’s not absurd or outrageous or bizarre enough to be a truly offensive and amusing black comedy. This is not to say there aren’t many enjoyable moments, because there are, but by taking the middle road—or actually, by constantly swerving back and forth from one road to the other—both the message and the overall entertainment value are somewhat diluted. It’s one of those “it could have been better, if just…” movies. Still, God Bless America is fascinating to watch and talk about afterwards with friends, and Goldthwaite deserves credit for being brave enough to make such a personal, risky film.
- mexcine posted this