Film Review – God Bless America
I don’t think anyone would argue with the assessment that there are a lot of problems with our culture these days. The obsession with celebrity and entitlement have become incredibly pervasive in our culture with the rise of reality TV. Our fallout of this cultural shift is the subject of Bobcat Goldthwait’s newest film, God Bless America.
The story follows Frank (Joel Murray), who has grown tired of America’s “me-first” culture, and, after receiving some unfortunate medical news, decides to take matters into his own hands and improve the world. His first crime is witnessed by teenager Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), after which the two form an unlikely bond as they go on a spree enacting justice together.
Bobcat Goldthwait is one of the more unique writer/directors working. His strongest ability seems to be his selection of projects, picking things that are provocative, but in a way that isn’t purely dependent upon shock value. His fearlessness as a filmmaker is really admirable, and while I don’t always agree with the messages he presents, I appreciate that he is part of the conversation. I completely understand why his willingness to poke at issues in his films has helped him develop a cult standing in the film world. Stylistically, I don’t think he has done much to differentiate himself as a director yet, though that isn’t to say he isn’t a good director—but just by looking at his films, there isn’t anything that stands out to me. For instance, here at times the film felt a little bit indulgent, as Goldthwait let scenes run on longer than they needed to go. His conversations, while amusing and thought-provoking, never felt as catchy or as tight as something written by someone like Quentin Tarantino. Similarly the TV show parodies were amusing, but they did feel like they went on longer than necessary as well.
To Goldthwait’s credit, he did an excellent job of casting this movie. Joel Murray is one of the most prolific supporting actors in recent television history, and yet nobody knows him. He is constantly working (having done things like Dharma & Greg, Mad Men, Still Standing, and Shameless), and yet he remains barely a recognizable face. It is nice to see him get the opportunity to be a lead for a change, and he does an admirable job of it. Not only does he provide a lot of the comedy, but his skewed sense of morality is probably the most relatable in the movie.
One of the most pleasant surprises of the film was Tara Lynne Barr, who is incredibly charming as Roxy. While Frank might start the chain of events, it is clearly Roxy that is the catalyst behind keeping it going. Despite the absurdity of the role, Barr does an incredible job in making her character believable. Despite her morally twisted character, you can still see the Disney channel starlet from her earlier career…and it fits together perfectly for her character.
The inevitable comparison the film runs into is with Bonnie and Clyde; those title characters are even referenced at several points. While the cross-gender-spree-killer angle is still there (depending upon how involved you feel Bonnie Parker really was), that feels like a bit of a simplistic comparison. The motivations are very different, as Bonnie and Clyde were in it for economic reasons, while Frank and Roxy are in it for moral reasons. Additionally, Frank goes out of his way to make sure they keep their relationship platonic because of Roxy’s young age. The comparisons will be inevitable, but ultimately are inadequate.
One of the more intriguing parallels that Goldthwait makes about the film’s theme is to the Roman Coliseum, particularly through his use of the American Idol parody “American Superstarz.” He points out that our fascination with spectacle has started to remove our humanity, and we have ceased to treat each other with respect and understanding. This point strongly resonated with me.
I’m not going to lie, there is a certain element of catharsis to the movie. Sure, it feels good to see the moral decay of our culture get its comeuppance. But there is an underlying question, which is addressed in the film to a certain degree, of where they draw the line in terms of who they kill. As much as I might empathize with their feelings, I feel a bit conflicted on the subject of judgment. It feels like a slippery slope, and one that historically has gotten the world into a lot of trouble. Goldthwait does address the issue, but while simultaneously glorifying Frank and Roxy’s actions.
There are a lot of good things about God Bless America, but somehow it just doesn’t add up to something great. It feels more like a series of clever ideas than one cohesive film. If the film was pared down a bit I might connect to it more, but as it stands now, the film is more of a great concept than great execution (no pun intended).
Final Grade: C+