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A darkly hilarious treatise that could have been so much better
The moment I read the synopsis for God Bless America, I had to see it. It was one of the first films I signed up for at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, and one I had to wait most of the week to get the opportunity to see. I wanted to adore it, despite hearing mixed things about it. But as I found out, this experience might never have been intended to be adored.
Frank (Joel Murray) is sick of everything in his life. His neighbours are inconsiderate, his daughter hates him, and he cannot connect with anyone at work because all they want to do is sit around and talk about reality television. After he finds out he has an inoperable brain tumour, Frank sets out to rid the United States of the filth that corrupts it. He finds an early fan and confidant in precocious teenager Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), and decides to bring her along for the ride with him.
God Bless America is not so much of a film as it is a treatise on what is wrong with pop culture in the modern United States. Writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait packs the film full of allusions and satires of reality television primarily, but trickles down to political news shows, celebrity gossip, social networking, texting, and more. Despite how cheap it looks, he manages to depict just the right imagery, the right dialogue and the right attitudes to truly sell the ideas the film brings up. And as the film starts to edge closer and closer to real life, Goldthwait starts getting his characters to start dishing out justice in the most ridiculous ways possible. He does and says what a lot of people are scared to, and bravely attempts to dissect and take down an institution that has been thriving for well over a decade. Nothing is sacred or off limits. While the film was clearly intended to shock and disgust with how darkly hilarious it is, it also sets out to teach and not so secretly try to right the wrongs we continue to allow invade our lives.
But this element of teaching veers into the realm of preaching, and is what holds Goldthwait's film back from being truly enjoyable. While I was initially amused at watching Murray's Frank spout musings about the human condition and what is wrong with society, that amusement quickly faded. By around the halfway mark, it becomes increasingly clear that the film has no real set direction or even a real point of existing. It is an extended rant that would have worked out better as a piece of stand-up. You can easily tell where Goldthwait has veered off track and lost any idea of what points he wanted to make, and he struggles to find his way back more often than he should. The film clocks in at just about 100-minutes, but twenty of those minutes could be chopped out if he stopped circling around and just make his points.
And what's worse is that outside of an absolutely stunning realization, the thesis if you will, during the bloodsoaked finale, he does not cover any real new ground in what he is getting Frank to talk about. These tropes he is taking down one by one are things people have been complaining almost as long as they have existed. Michael Moore is consistently churning out documentaries about them every few years. Yes, the majority of the population around the United States (and hell, worldwide) are embracing these ideals and not thinking any differently. But God Bless America is too subversive a film to ever conceivably be watched by these kinds of people. Does Goldthwait really think he can shock these people into submission with his vivid speeches and grotesque and borderline terrorist tactics? Does he think he can get them to rethink everything they follow and do in their everyday lives? If not, then why bother making the film?
Goldthwait claims that God Bless America is not meant to be a political film. But unless he really wants people to just laugh and forget about it moments later, then there is really no other way one can possibly read it.
While I felt for how agonizing some of the dialogue must have been to deliver, I really enjoyed Murray's performance as Frank. He is a bit player in dozens of TV shows and movies, and it is nice to see him finally get a leading role. He plays Frank as an upstanding and concerned citizen, one who truly believes in the war he is fighting. He has a quiet intensity about him, and seeing him jump between a tongue- in-cheek innocence and a full blown sociopath is truly remarkable. I am glad that Goldthwait took a chance on him, and I can only hope more directors will follow suit in the future. Barr, much like Chloë Moretz in Kick-Ass, is a revelation. She is ridiculously hilarious and downright terrifying all at the same time. From the moment she walks on-screen, she has an aura about her that never dissipates, allowing her to truly make something of her character even with some rather awful dialogue.
I think in the end, I appreciated God Bless America more than I actually enjoyed it. There are some really funny scenes sprinkled throughout, and just as many deeply thought-provoking moments. But it is a film that gets too full of itself much too often, and loses track of what it wants to be even more so. Goldthwait is a talented filmmaker (even if he shamelessly cribs his action beats and styles from some rather obvious influences), but I think he could have easily improved on the flaws that plague the film. I hope that the distribution deal he received affords him some time to make the necessary cuts. There is a truly great film somewhere in there, just waiting to appear.
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