I’m proud to be an American, but the bulk of us have gotten a bad rap in recent years. Sure, there are the types who believe that if it’s not from the US of A it ain’t worth a day-yum. But for the most part, I think Americans aren’t only tolerant of other cultures, we crave them. We’re always looking for something new and exciting with which to expand our horizons or worse, to exploit and profit from. The good old Red, White and Blue melting pot has churned out some great products and innovations over the years, but at the price of permeating and watering down global flavors. As a taste for American trends has spread, the crap of our culture has also started to float overseas. Our International face is now represented by Jersey Shore, Kim Kardashian and McDonalds. Nobody in the US actually likes this garbage, but everybody thinks we do, because it’s pushed on everyone, EVERYWHERE. Add to that a bloated sense of entitlement and the growing breakdown of common decency and it’s no wonder people think we’re A-holes. Well, on July 3rd, Magnolia Home Entertainment released Bobcat Goldthwait’s God Bless America (DVD and Blu), a whimsical meditation on the decline of our culture. And really, what’s more American than telling people why our nation sucks on her birthday?
I actually brought this movie with me on an overseas trip this week and kind of felt like a douche walking around holding a video case with God Bless America on the front. Sure, it could seem a little cocky to the uninitiated, but the appellation is wholly tongue-in-cheek. Frank (Mad Men‘s Joel Murray) lost his wife to a younger, better-looking man and his daughter is growing up to be a materialistic bitch. He’s also losing his job and lots and lots of sleep. On a nightly basis, Frank uses the television to drown out the noise of his shithead neighbors, only to expose himself to the various O’Reilly Factor / My Super Sweet Sixteen / American Idol-style dreck one finds on the tube nowadays. The last straw breaks when he learns he’s terminally ill. Fed up with the world, Frank sets out to take his own life, but after catching an MTV-esque reality show, decides to turn the gun on it’s bratty subject… and thus begins a killing spree against everything wrong in modern day America. Nothing is safe here: cell phone users in movie theaters, perverts, fear mongering right-wingers and straight-up rude people are all apt to get the business end of Frank’s gun. Along for the ride is Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), a disenfranchised youth who shares the same hatred for our societal decline. Together, they’re a modern-day (platonic) Bonnie and Clyde setting out on a culture cleanse. How far will they go before they’re satisfied or stopped?
Well, they pretty much go all the way. They have to. Writer/Director Goldthwait’s script isn’t exactly the deepest thing ever written, but it must have been pretty damn cathartic to get out. Who isn’t sick and tired of stupid becoming the norm? God Bless America is obviously the result of someone who’s just had enough… and in this case the breaking point was a real-life ad for a farting elephant ringtone Bobcat saw on late night TV. Obviously the filmmaker doesn’t want, nor expect anyone to go out and kill folks who step outside the lines of common decency. As a matter of fact, it’s mentioned in the film that blaming the media is a cop-out and people who go to extremes should take responsibility for their actions (hear, hear!). Goldthwait uses the art of comedy to vent his frustration with an increasingly annoying society of people, addressing the question, “Has the world gone crazy, or have I?” Frank does go crazy and for 105 minutes, ironically allows us to go to the extreme without being held accountable for, say, killing an inconsiderate neighbor or a pedophile or Simon Cowell or that guy who buys his 16 year old daughter a car costing more than what most of us make in a year. But beyond the daydream of punishing those whose individual crimes on humanity are nothing compared to their collective whole, the movie lacks a story. There is some character development and possibly an arc manifesting itself in the revelation that societal trends are too large for any one man to stand against, but after the bloodbath that ensues, what can be done with these anti-heroes? It’s mentioned they could leave the country (and maybe they want to), but by the end of the film it’s apparent that the only place they’re going is down.
The acting is pretty solid, with Joel Murray giving a great frustrated-everyman performance, however, Tara Lynne Barr feels a little over the top at times in her delivery. Bobcat Goldthwait (World’s Best Dad) again shows us he’s more than competent in the director’s chair, bringing us on this absurd, seditious journey into the shallow heart of American culture with the Stars and Stripes waving in nearly every shot. He keeps things light and humorous while building a believably sweet and blood-soaked friendship between Frank and Roxy- no easy task given the age difference between the two. A couple of things that really stood out to me on this picture were the soundtrack and costuming. Sarah de Sa Rego clothes the actors in the tackiest threads Americana has to offer. Bad sweaters, Hawaiian shirts and Midwestern “farmer’s daughter”-style dresses run amok through the frame without irony. Matt Kollar’s bittersweet, yet haunting music helps keep the film in a sort-of atmospheric limbo. You never feel that the film gets too jokey, nor does it ever get too serious. When the scales tip in either direction, things quickly balance out; a sudden murder brings us back to reality or a joke from left field lightens a massacre. Kollar manages to play to this strength with an even-keeled soundtrack that could have been tricky to pull off in less-skilled hands.
As far as the disc goes, Magnolia has done a great job with this DVD. The picture is clean, though it has that “not shot on film” sharpness to it. Sound is a nice 5.1 Dolby Digital mix that was spacious and clear. They’ve given us a bevy of extras including the theatrical trailer, interviews with Murray, Barr and Goldthwait and a few comical outtakes. There’s also a featurette titled HDNet: A Look at God Bless America which provides much of the same information as the interviews. What I really enjoyed was God Bless TV featuring deleted and extended scenes used on Frank’s television set. I’m a sucker for this stuff – I’ve hardly played Grand Theft Auto IV, but I’ve watched pretty much every channel on the safe house’s television set. Maybe I should just order cable again. A behind the scenes featurette, Killing with Kindness is a nice look at the production in progress and that damn Bobcat is still fun to watch after all these years. He’s also fun to hear! A commentary track with the Director and his two leads is included and had me laughing as much as or more than I did during the feature.
I give God Bless America 3 out of 5 reels. Bobcat describes the film as “Liberals with guns,” not all that inaccurate and kind of interesting when you think of how we’re all supposed to squeeze into neatly predetermined and uncompromising political categories. Maybe we need to start compromising; to stop being so selfish and start considering those around us. Is it bad for a movie to be more of a statement than a story? Not necessarily, especially when the medicine goes down with a spoonful of laughing gas. But in the end, this film is like a bag of Cheetos – it brings a smile to your face and takes the edge off, but as you get to the crumbs (as delicious as they are), you know you’ve just taken in a bunch of empty calories.