Magnolia Pictures // 2012 // 105 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // July 9th, 2012
Taking out the trash, one jerk at a time.
"I mean, why have a civilization anymore if we are no longer interested in being civilized?"
Frank (Joel Murray, Mad Men) is a sad, lonely middle-aged man. His wife has left him. His young daughter is quickly transforming into a spoiled brat. His next-door neighbors are loud and obnoxious. He's just been fired from his job due to sexual harassment charges (though his only crime was sending flowers to a depressed female co-worker in an attempt to cheer her up). To cap it all off, Frank has just been informed that he has a brain tumor and doesn't have much time left to live. Given the state of things, Frank decides its time to go ahead and end things himself. However, just as he's preparing to off himself, he witnesses some particularly abhorrent behavior taking place on a reality television show: a wealthy 16-year-old girl throwing a fit because her parents gave her the wrong kind of car for her birthday. In a fit of rage, Frank tracks down the young reality star and murders her. A young teen named Roxy (Tara Lynn Barr, The Suite Life of Zack and Cody) witnesses the event and finds herself inspired. She convinces a reluctant Frank to let her join him, and together the two begin hunting down and murdering some of America's most irritating citizens.
During the pilot of Aaron Sorkin's television series The Newsroom, there's a scene in which a news anchor played by Jeff Daniels has an angry meltdown while appearing on a cable television show. Daniels speaks with eloquence and fury about the modern state of America; first taking down its current state and then speaking about its beautifully elusive, untapped potential for greatness. For the most part, it's terrific, inspiring stuff. However, midway through there's an ill-considered bit of old man pompousness in which Daniels derisively describes the young people of today as the "Worst. Generation. Ever." and claims that things were vastly better back in the good old days. Perhaps there are certain specific areas in which that's true (news coverage, for instance), but the broad statement Daniels makes is just silly. I only mention this because I kept thinking of that Daniels speech while watching Bobcat Goldthwait's God Bless America, a mostly-smart and well-intentioned film that occasionally subverts its power with dumb, clunky moments.
It's clear that Goldthwait is simply pissed off with modern culture, and his rage is most eloquently expressed during the film's funny, emotionally crushing first act. We watch as Frank flips through the television, landing upon one depressing piece of cruel sensationalism after another. One woman throws a bloody tampon at another. A Bill O'Reilly type spews bile at "Feminazis" and accuses the President of being a Communist. Snarky TV judges snicker as untalented contestants try out for an American Idol-style reality program. Ads for fart-noise apps appear across the screen. He eventually just turns the television off, but the inanity can't be escaped. His neighbors angrily defend Michael Jackson and wonder what on earth has happened to Lindsay Lohan's career. Obnoxious morning shock-jocks derisively make fun of assorted pop culture targets. His co-workers ponder whether it's really wise for Angelina Jolie to be adopting another baby. It's a terrific snapshot of the endless junk that currently dominates the public consciousness. So little of substance; so much cruelty.
Part of what makes God Bless America so effective is that it understands just how futile its message is. When Frank and Roxy join forces, there are so many potential targets they don't even know where to start. They joke about killing people for particularly trivial reasons ("People who high-five in public. Adult women who refer to their breasts as 'The Girls.' Anybody who's ever been 'stoked' or 'pumped' about something."), but Frank is cautious in reality. "I only want to kill people who really deserve it," he says. His holy crusade is fractured and inconsistent; this machine he's fighting is something far too big to contain or understand. Even his points are lost on the public: when Frank and Roxy shoot a number of moviegoers for talking on their cell phones and engaging in rowdy behavior during a screening of a sobering war documentary, the media quickly blames the violence on the intense footage featured in the film. In the end, God Bless America is a howl of pain and anguish; blasting shotgun shells aimlessly into a tidal wave of toxic mindlessness.
Still, there's no doubt that the movie is intended to play as a bit of wickedly over-the-top wish fulfillment at times, and it's these sequences that are the least interesting. They're the film's marketing hook and its most sensationalistic material, but they're also the most one-dimensional elements. These moments are darkly entertaining when Goldthwait brings something else to the table (such as a hilarious bit of physical comedy when a should-have-been-cool execution turns into something very frantic and messy), but they get a little old after a while (partially because Goldthwait somehow manages to turn many of his assorted pop culture surrogates into over-the-top parodies of the real thing -- he exaggerates things that are already exaggerated enough). Additionally, there are all of those aforementioned "irritable old man" moments, in which the film crustily grumbles about less-than-deserving targets like cell phones, Diablo Cody and the new Battlestar Galactica (seriously Bobcat, BSG and Star Trek: The Original Series fans are generally on the same team).
Still, it's ultimately the soulful beauty of Joel Murray's performance that carries the film. He's a psychopath, but Murray nonetheless depicts him as a fundamentally tender and well-intentioned man. He tends to do a lot of speechifying, but his words are generally on-target, and Murray brings an enormous amount of heartbroken humanity to them.
"America has become a cruel and vicious place. We reward the shallowest, the dumbest, the meanest and the loudest. We no longer have any common sense or decency. No sense of shame. There is no right and wrong. The worst qualities in people are looked up to and celebrated. Lying and spreading fear are fine. As long as you make money doin' it. We've become a nation of slogan-saying, bile-spewing hate-mongers. We've lost our kindness. We've lost our soul."
Yes, obviously it's wrong for Frank to follow these words by murdering a whole bunch of people. But Goldthwait's symbolic point is well-taken: in today's world, sometimes you have to use loud sensationalism just to get someone's attention. And even then there's no guarantee that they'll actually understand what you're saying. For such a violent and intentionally provocative film, its ultimate message is simple, tame and sweet: settle down, grow up and be nice to one another.
God Bless America (Blu-ray) has received a solid 1080p/2.35:1 transfer that gets the job done without really going out of its way to impress. There's nothing much to complain about aside from the fact that the image looks a little soft; it's a thoroughly average transfer without any considerable attributes or negative elements. The color palette is (ironically, I suppose) bright and chipper throughout, and does manage a good bit of pop at times. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is fine, but it's more of a comedy mix than an action mix, if you know what I mean. Sure, there's a bit of rattling and shaking during the scenes of violence, but it's pretty subdued under the circumstances. Dialogue is mostly clean and clear (a few lines sound a bit muffled) and the eclectic soundtrack is well mixed. Supplements include a commentary with Goldthwait, Murray and Barr, a half-hour interview with the same trio, a pair of featurettes ("Behind the Scenes: Killing with Kindness" and "HDNet: A Look at God Bless America"), some deleted/extended scenes, outtakes, a music video and a trailer.
More Network than Hobo with a Shotgun, God Bless America is smarter and deeper than its marketing campaign might have led you to believe (even if it falls short of the brilliance of Goldthwait's previous film, World's Greatest Dad). Some will be irritated and others will find it a bit too ham-fisted for their tastes, but there's enough of substance and value to make the film worth checking out.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted/Extended Scenes