Comedy fields critiques of society’s failings


(Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

Alex Williams

Director: Bobcat Goldthwait
Genre: Comedy
Runtime: 105 minutes

Few films can call themselves important, and most films that try to earn that title are insufferable. However, “God Bless America” is an important film. It’s a passionate, energetic, deeply felt critique of American society, and it’s filled with anger and regret. After viewing it at this year’s South By Southwest festival, I proclaimed it the best film of the year. While time will tell if it keeps its title, I’ll be surprised if I see a film this year with such an essential, intelligently stated message.

With 2009’s “World’s Greatest Dad,” director Bobcat Goldthwait used teen suicide to show society’s ugliest tendencies. Here Joel Murray stars as his mouthpiece, the blunt instrument Goldthwait uses to deliver rants about everything he thinks is wrong during “God Bless America’s” most rousing moments. Murray plays Frank, a perfectly pathetic yet sympathetic hero. Frank is divorced, estranged from his daughter, newly unemployed, and when he’s hit with a terminal cancer diagnosis, Frank puts a gun in his mouth. However, a well-timed episode of a show styled after MTV’s “My Super Sweet 16” convinces him that its star deserves to die far more than he. From there, Frank and teenage accomplice Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr) embark on a cross-country killing spree of society’s most repellent figures.

Murray’s impassioned rants, full of razor-sharp insights into human behavior, are easily his best moments of the film. But Frank is never just a soapbox for Goldthwait to stand on. Murray’s work here comes from a wounded, soulful place, and he gives Frank a self-righteous anger at how much the world has changed and how little good is left in it. Just as great is Barr in her first major screen role. Barr’s character could have easily fallen into the stereotype of wiser-than-her-years teenager, but her performance is full of confidence, self-awareness and a dangerous edge that makes her Roxy a bit unpredictable. Murray and Barr have wonderful chemistry, and while the film isn’t afraid to comment on the oddness of their pairing, their relationship has a sweetness and delicacy that’s endearing.

Goldthwait does a great job setting the table for Frank’s killing spree, and he makes sure to establish that “God Bless America” takes place in a world just a bit more extreme, a reality slightly more nutty than our own. In Goldthwait’s eyes, our country is a sinking ship, our entertainment full of ugliness and vitriol, and it’s hard not to slowly come around to his point of view as he takes precise, measured aim at some very specific targets to hilarious effect. While the film can occasionally lapse into clumsiness, Goldthwait’s anger at society is infectious, and there are enough memorable moments and wickedly funny jokes to keep things moving quickly.

“God Bless America” holds a mirror up to pop culture, reality television and genuine human ugliness, and there’s a lot of vicarious satisfaction to be gained from Goldthwait’s unflinching condemnation of American society. But the film is also worth watching for Murray’s measured, soulful performance, Barr’s petulant performance or Goldthwait’s script that’s just as interested in making you laugh as it is making you think. The film is one of the highlights of the year so far, a film that should be viewed simply because it gets so much right in its attack on everything that’s wrong.