What's the formula for a great film? Can it be determined by dividing the number of minutes a movie holds us enthralled by the amount of time we spend waiting for something interesting to happen? Perhaps it's measured in the efficiency of the screenplay multiplied by the competence of the filmmakers. Whatever formula you choose to use, odds are Bobcat Goldthwait's God Bless America wouldn't meet the criteria of a “great” film; the direction is a little rough around the edges, the performances occasionally border on amateurish, and, much like a Kevin Smith film, all of the characters speak in a single voice.
Incredibly, Goldthwait manages to use these perceived shortcomings to his advantage in his fifth feature directorial outing -- a caustic, firebomb satire that may not be the comedy America wants, but is almost certainly the one America deserves.
Fed up with his selfish neighbors, fired from his soul-sucking job, and depressed at the infrequency of visits with his bratty young daughter, 45-year-old divorcé Frank (Joel Murray) prepares to end it all after being diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor. Just as Frank is about to pull the trigger, however, he has a sudden flash of inspiration: Before he takes his own life, he'll do the world a big favor and permanently silence the loudmouthed teenage star of a popular reality-television show. After witnessing the clumsy execution firsthand, high-school misfit Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr) convinces Frank to continue his bloody mission of cultural cleansing with her as his sidekick. In no time, Frank and Roxy are leaving a trail of bodies in their wake, and making headlines across the country. But all good things must come to an end, and when their partnership hits an unexpected hitch, Frank draws up plans to go out with a final bang.
Technically unpolished and populated with actors who resemble people you might see at the grocery store rather than moonlighting models, God Bless America is the cinematic equivalent of a Black Flag album -- reckless, dangerous, and positively fearless in its quest to rip contemporary society up by the roots. Brilliantly played by longtime character actor Joel Murray (who also appeared briefly as a policeman in the 2011 Oscar favorite The Artist), Frank is a reluctant pop-culture assassin who's been pushed too far by the growing void of inanity, narcissism, and entitlement that's gradually eroding America thanks to a steady diet of reality television, and a paralyzing fear of inconvenience. Battered yet soulful, he's the perfect mouthpiece for Goldthwait's defiantly transgressive screenplay. As his all-too-eager teenage sidekick Roxy, Barr occasionally overplays the precocious hand, but thankfully it doesn't detract from the interactions between the characters -- a central element to the film's success as it highlights the fact that Frank's 21st century malaise stems more from his sensitivity and deep-rooted compassion rather than a generational disconnect.
And while subtlety is hardly the point here, Goldthwait does fill God Bless America with lots of nice little stylistic flourishes (such as a shot of Frank listening to his entitled daughter's tantrum on the phone while images of a bratty reality-TV star play on a background television) that reveal just how much he's evolving as a filmmaker. Meanwhile, during the same summer that Alice Cooper is being used as the butt of jokes in Tim Burton's Dark Shadows, Goldthwait makes poignant use of the legendary rocker's “"Hello Hooray"” and “"I Never Cry"” in two of the film's central sequences -- opting for earnestness over irony in a time when the former is in precious short supply. With all due respect to Goldthwait, God Bless America feels like the kind of film the late, great Bill Hicks may have made were he still around today -- a thorny comedy that isn't so much laugh-out-loud hilarious as it is profanely enlightening -- and the fact that some of the satire is virtually indistinguishable from the product it is parodying makes the movie something of a bitter pill. Once we realize that the funhouse mirror on the big screen is actually just a plain-old looking glass reflecting our own distorted values, it's obvious that while God Bless America may not meet everyone's criteria of being a “great” film, it most certainly qualifies as great art if for no other reason than it's likely to yield some intelligent, reflective, and perhaps heated discussions during the ride home. Maybe once we start talking, we'll be more likely to realize that something has gone horribly wrong.