When a dying man (Joel Murray) meets a cynical teenager (Tara Lynne Barr), they learn they have a lot in common: they both hate reality TV show stars and right-wing cable commentators with a murderous passion. God Bless America, the fourth film by writer-director Bobcat Goldthwait, has a good concept and some funny moments, but its execution is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing you can’t get already in numerous superior movies or from Internet trolls. This Blu-ray provides some insight into its production and has good picture and sound, but I cannot recommend it, even as a fan of this sort of dark comedy.
God Bless America (2011)
Studio: Magnolia Home Entertainment (produced by Darko Entertainment)
Length: 105 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Languages: English 5.1 DTS-HD MA
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish
Film Release Date: April 6, 2012
Disc Release Date: July 3, 2012
Review Date: July 21, 2012
“Why have a civilization if we’re no longer interested in being civilized?”
Frank Murdock (Joel Murray) is an embittered divorcée working in a go-nowhere job at an insurance company in suburban New York. His bitterness comes from what he perceives as the decline in civility, at least as how it appears on the truly terrible TV shows he subjects himself each night. But it’s not the insipid sitcoms, meretricious dramas and repetitive action shows that grind his gears; it’s reality TV and right-wing commentators, not to mention his rude neighbors. After chewing out a co-worker for liking a morning DJ show he happens to find offensive, his boss (Geoff Pierson) fires him on the pretense of sexual harassment of a female co-worker. On top of that, his doctor tells him he has an inoperable brain tumor; Frank had assumed these were migraines brought on by his neighbors’ screaming baby. Adding further insult to injury, his bratty daughter Ava (Mackenzie Brooke Smith) doesn’t want to visit his house anymore. After witnessing an allegedly disabled man (Aris Alvarado) being ridiculed for his off-key rendition of Diana Ross’s “Theme from Mahogany,” his audition song for American Superstarz, that’s the last straw. With nothing left to lose, he contemplates ending his life with a gun, but he decides to do something about those who annoy him first. He steals his neighbors’ yellow convertible and heads to Virginia Beach to deal with a spoiled brat named Chloe (Maddie Hasson) who stars in a reality TV show. Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), an alienated 16-year-old girl sees him and is so impressed, she convinces him to take her with him. When they learn they share many of the same pet peeves, Roxy convinces him to use the gun to end other lives beside his own.
Many stand-up comedians have made successful transitions into film careers, but other than Woody Allen, few stand-up comedians have made successful transitions into film directing. While fifteen years passed between Shakes the Clown and Sleeping Dogs Lie, Bobcat Goldthwait followed the latter up with 2009’s pitch black—and wickedly funny—satire World’s Greatest Dad. This film should have been a worthy successor, but instead, it’s a huge letdown. Despite some genuinely funny set pieces and one-liners, the film fails miserably as a satire because of its cognitive dissonance. It is an amoral film with a heavy-handed moralistic streak a mile wide, and it is represents the same lack of civility it claims to lament. Frank yearns for the so-called “good old days” when everybody was supposedly nice to each other, yet he has the gall to draw an equivalence a bunch of idiotic TV shows about rich, narcissistic teenagers with long-winded cable TV editorial shows and universally despised hate groups, while appointing himself judge, jury and executioner? It goes after easy targets because it knows most people who would see a film of this nature would agree with them, while the type of people being targeted would avoid it. Yet it still misses the mark. Reality TV operates on the principle that “all publicity is good publicity,” so by watching it and letting it affect his life, Frank is not much better than the alleged rubes who enjoy watching spoiled pubescent narcissists make asses of themselves. He let them destroy his life. Funny, not everyone who watches these shows acts like them.
In addition to borrowing plot elements from Falling Down, Bonnie and Clyde, Serial Mom and Idiocracy shamelessly, while stirring this bitter brew in a melting pot of hatred and two-wrongs-make-a-right moralizing, Goldthwait’s dramatically slack script has other problems. Many is the time I yelled at the screen when the characters, logically, should have been caught. Furthermore, this movie is an instant time capsule. It makes fun of things that, by their very nature, are dispensable and are unlikely to even qualify for the test of time, much less stand it. Along with this film, which premiered on Video-on-Demand before its mercifully brief theatrical run, most of them will be forgotten as time passes; who in 2012 brings up That’s Incredible, Morton Downey, Jr. or William Hung, the obvious inspiration for the kid in the singing contest, in everyday conversation? Its easy targets, which it misses as consistently as a blind marksman, are so thinly veiled, they don’t even count as parodies.
The film’s thesis that these cultural ephemera—of which I am even less of a fan than Goldthwait—is unique to American culture is not only insulting, but inaccurate. American Idol is about as American as a plate of spotted dick; it got started in Britain as Pop Idol. Roxy wants to move to France because, according to her, they hate Americans. Where did she get that impression? Considering the fact that her other criteria for wanting people dead revolve around her tastes in music and popular culture, as well as her political beliefs, she probably got them from pop cultural stereotypes about the French, where they also have their own version of Idol. Perhaps the worst thing about the film is the fact that it could never have been made without the toxic culture it claims to despise. It also contributes to it by making the audience want to root for the straw men to be burned.
Then there’s the nature of Frank and Roxy’s relationship. Frank is fervently anti-pedophilia, condemning Woody Allen for marrying his ex-girlfriend’s daughter and Vladmir Nabokov, who has been dead since 1977, for writing Lolita. Goldthwait assumes his audience would be horrified by the love between a man in his late 50s and a 16-year-old girl. In doing so, he gives Frank the moral high ground. He won’t touch an underage girl, but he will go on a killing spree?
The film’s one saving grace is Tara Lynn Barr’s performance as Roxy. The Bad Seed reincarnated as a perpetually pissed-off, ADD-riddled hipster chick, she’s a laugh-a-minute spitfire the third act, when she is revealed to be not just a psychopathic, borderline genocidal loser, but a liar as well. Her performance rises above the unbelievable character on the page. On the other hand, Joel Murray is trying to be a hero, but he comes off as a sanctimonious, hypocritical bore.
Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the film was shot digitally with the Arri Alexa system. The picture looks fine, with bright, saturated colors—greens, blues and, of course, reds, stand out, but not in a garish way—while contrast is average. Grain is nowhere to be found due to its digital origin, but there is no DNR to report. Sharpness is above average, with the most detail in close-ups; depth of field is shallow in much of the film, leading to moments of softness. In the commentary, Goldthwait suggests—half-jokingly—that the DP had a little “chemical” assistance.
The film has a 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack, but as it is mostly a dialogue-driven film, it’s very front-heavy, with the surround activity limited to music. Even sound effects rarely stand out. There are no technical problems with the track, but it just sits there when it needs to come alive.
All video extras are 1080p.
—Audio Commentary with Bobcat Goldthwait, Joel Murray and Tara Lynne Barr
—Behind the Scenes: Killing With Kindness (27:34): Cast and crew talk about their intentions with this film; Goldthwait cites Network and Badlands as influences, while admitting he identifies with the male lead.
—God Bless TV: Deleted/Extended Scenes (5:00): Extended versions of some of the same on-the-nose “parodies” in the film.
—Outtakes (2:29): Bloopers and extended takes.
—Interviews with Bobcat Goldthwait, Joel Murray and Tara Lynne Barr (27:42): The director and the two leads go into details about the film.
—Roxy and Frank Music Video (3:02): Hear Joel Murray sing.
—HDNet: A Look at God Bless America (4:54): A promo for the film’s cable TV premiere
—Theatrical trailer (2:21)
God Bless America has an interesting premise with a director and cast that could make it work. But its one-sidedness, heavy-handedness and mean-spiritedness undermine it at every corner, and every point it makes has already been made before, and better, in other films. One can call it satire, but one cannot call it good satire or use that label as a shield to deflect criticism. This Blu-ray does a decent job with the picture and sound, and the extras are interesting, but I would recommend doing the same thing I do with reality TV shows: just don’t watch.