Think of God Bless America, directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, as kind of a mix of Falling Down and Super — but funnier than Falling Down, considerably more accurately satirical than Super, and relentlessly violent in a blackly comedic way, without being meaninglessly so.
The plot of the film concerns Frank (Joel Murray, in a brilliant, nuanced performance), a 45-year-old divorced dad with a temper-tantrum throwing, spoiled brat of a daughter, a shitty job with shitty, moronic co-workers, and a healthy, scathing disdain for what our culture has become. Frank suffers from severe headaches and insomnia, and his late-night channel-surfing to drown out the perpetual noise of the self-absorbed couple and their constantly screaming baby who live next door does little but bombard him with an abundance of lousy programming — everything from American Idol to Fox News is parodied here.
When Frank is diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor, he figures he has nothing to lose by indulging in his violent fantasies of killing the people he feels are ruining our culture. Consider it a purging, if you will. Or perhaps the idea of “misery loves company” run amok.
When he takes out his first target, the screeching, spoiled-brat 16-year-old star of a TV reality show, he inadvertently attracts the attention of teenaged career outsider Roxy (doe-eyed, apple-cheeked Tara Lynn Barr), a too-smart outcast of a high school girl who quickly worms her way into Frank’s life, tragically romanticizing the idea of killing annoying people as being less boring that her ordinary life. The unlikely pair head off on a cross-country, gun-toting, shooting-spree adventure, cheerily killing people who are bad, mean, or just plain irritating.
Goldthwait piercingly examines the devolution of culture: how TV reality shows and the internet have become our primary source of entertainment; the endless stream of banal conversations about pop icons and celebrity gossip that dominate social interactions, sublimating the presumably more difficult concept of conversing thoughtfully; hate-spewing TV and radio personalities and the way in which their ideas come to permeate conversation and thus become acceptable; and, perhaps most of all, the solipsistic view that’s become so ubiquitous in our culture that it’s defined the modern social more for how we act and interact with each other.
The core thesis that Goldthwait puts forth in this excellent cinematic philosophical dissertation is that we’ve become a society of ear-bud wearing, self-indulgent, selfish people who no longer recognize that we’re sharing our neighborhoods, our offices, our streets, our movie theaters, our world with other people. We walk around in insulating bubbles of selfdom. We are raising a generation of kids who are bereft of the values we were raised with just a generation or two ago, kids who think temper tantrums are the way to get what their want because their parents indulge such behavior. And I am completely with Goldthwait here: our culture has become lost, untethered, and completely fucked up.
I don’t think, though, that our society is irredeemable. To evolve, societies must go through cycles of devolution — for every two steps we take forward, we take another back, evaluate where we are, and then regroup and keep moving forward in a course of inevitable progression. And perhaps what Goldthwait’s really getting at here is that it sometimes takes a person like Frank to call attention to the craziness, to call bullshit on the groupthink so that we can take another step forward. Of course I don’t advocate for going around shooting people, but neither do I think that’s Goldthwait’s intention here, for all that the film is comically violent in the way in which it makes its points.
If you watch God Bless America and think that Goldthwait is hypocritical in creating characters in Roxy and Frank who respond to what they see in the world around them by ruthlessly gunning other people down, then I’m sorry, but you are completely missing the point and skimming too close to the surface. This film requires a little more thought than analyzing a Michael Bay movie, and you have to look a little deeper, past the guns and the blood and the shock value of the brilliant opening fantasy sequence (and no, Bobcat, you should absolutely never consider cutting that bit out of your film), and see what this movie is really saying.
Frank and Roxy don’t represent Goldthwait believing that it’s okay for people to run around with guns shooting people who piss them off (well, okay, maybe with the exception of the movie theater scene, which kind of thrilled my soul after several days in Toronto of seeing industry people continue to whip out their goddamned Blackberries and iPhones in screenings because of course, social rules about not doing asshole things couldn’t possibly apply to them). Frank and Roxy are abstract representations of the need to purge society by making people more aware of their behaviors and how they impact other people. It’s about the need to realize that — big surprise coming here — other people are just as important as you are, and you are not the center of the universe. No one is. That’s the point.
Art exists to challenge our perceptions, to make us think, to question, to examine both who we are and the world around us. Sydney J. Harris, in a long-ago column for the Chicago Daily News, wrote that education exists to turn mirrors into windows; in other words, that by learning to think, we learn to see not just what we already know, but to see the world around us, to view life from other perspectives, to be exposed to all that we don’t know so that we can grow and evolve.
Sadly, our pop culture-adoring, TMZ-worshipping, self-aggrandizing culture, bred in part by things like reality TV and American Idol and, yes, shitty Hollywood movies, is breeding a nation of solipsists who look at the world and see only themselves and their own needs reflected back at them. What Goldthwait is doing here is holding up another mirror to what we’ve become, reflecting back at us what we are in all its ugliness and defining the need for us to purge ourselves of what we’ve become. God Bless America is a brilliant skewering of American culture as it is today. See it.