'God Bless America' Has Bite, Lacks Brains
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
"I know it's not normal to want to kill," Frank, the hero of "God Bless America," says to himself in the opening minutes, just as we've been treated to a depiction of the reasons that he, well, wants to kill. These reasons include the paper-thin walls of his living quarters, his rude, shallow neighbors and their noisesome infant, and, most crucially, the relentlessly infantile expectorations of what the movie never refers to as the culture industry.
Frank (Joel Murray, who handles his schizzily conceived character -- part "regular guy," part non-regular-guy-filmmaker's mouthpiece -- better than maybe it deserves) doesn't yell or scream about being, as an older satire on television put it, mad as hell and not inclined to take it anymore. After fruitlessly debating with a colleague on a subject that's generally and properly perceived in real life as watercooler trivia ("Yes," Frank says, "I am too good for a karaoke show that makes stars out of people with no talent"), getting canned from his job on a work-discomfort rap that'd never hold up in court let alone an HR inquiry, learning he has an inoperable brain tumor and, oh yes, suffering rejection from his awful estranged daughter, Frank digs up an old automatic. And instead of shooting his television like that great American Elvis did, he actually blows away a particularly noxious reality TV star. And in so doing earns the approval, and abetting skills, of alienated teen Roxy, and the two embark on a shooting spree, targeting the figures who've made this country, in Frank's words, "so mean."
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That this movie, written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, doesn't give much consideration to the contradiction inherent in this particular course of action isn't surprising. The anger the movie gives vent to is, yes, righteous, and its targets are arguably apt (one is reminded of the routine by Goldthwait's fellow comic, the late Bill Hicks, in which he asked which members of the audience were in marketing, and then advised all those who raised their hands to kill themselves). But it's also kind of a crock, a safety valve, as it were for someone who finally doesn't have the stones/integrity to opt out of the popular culture he so claims to despise.
This isn't to say that "God Bless America" doesn't have some laughs, or a few moments of truth (the stuff involving a Glenn Beck-esque self-promoter played by dead ringer-for-Nick Swardson actor Regan Burns is pretty spot-on). But it's not even self-aware enough to understand the ways it partakes in what it's condemning. Goldthwait has a good old time both emulating and sending up "Juno"-esque "sassy teen" dialogue in a long exchange between Frank and Roxy's very odd couple, but I don't get the sense that the filmmaker appreciates that his own negatively idealized teen character is every bit as much a construct as Diablo Cody's adorable pregnant waif/pixie was.
For myself, as far as offensive cultural clichés are concerned, I might wanna reach for my (virtual) revolver when I see yet another filmmaker do yet another slow-motion shot of a guy with a bunch of guns moving determinedly to his date with destiny while the soundtrack offers up a piece of '60s classic rock as an easy signifier of some kind of "rebellious" "cool." (In this case, the Kinks' "I'm Not Like Everybody Else." Get it?) And then there's the scene just prior to that, a clumsy amalgam of classic bits from both "Taxi Driver" and "Jackie Brown" that represents a failure of imagination and is at least, in part, one of the root causes of, well, karaoke shows. In any event, any work of art that seriously posits that Nabokov's "Lolita" constitutes an apologia for pedophilia isn't as smart as it would like to think it is. Is it "mean" to point that out?
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.