God Bless America, written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait is billed as a black comedy that satirizes modern American culture. It’s not really much of a satire, though, as the pop culture that it portrays is not much of an exaggeration of reality.
The black comedy part comes in the form of Frank (Joel Murray) and Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), who become serial killers who kill supposedly deserving victims for their political or cultural transgressions (or, in some cases, merely because they are rude). Frank is a divorced, middle-aged guy who has just been fired and diagnosed with a terminal illness. Roxy is a teenage misfit who becomes his sidekick on a cross country rampage.
This film can be seen as an extremely low brow version of Network (1976), as many of the long-winded tirades that Goldwaith puts in Frank’s mouth are reminiscent of the “I’m mad as hell” speech from that far superior film. This movie is full of paradoxes and ironies, and I’m not sure that they are intended.
To begin with, this often self righteous bromide against pop culture was made by a man whose main claim to fame was starring in the slapstick Police Academy movies of the 1980s. I’ve also seen bits and pieces of Goldwaith’s standup performances and I’m not exactly clear how his type of humor is so much more highbrow than the kind he clearly loathes in God Bless America.
Of course, one thing that Frank keeps repeating is that his main problem with modern culture is how mean and unkind it is. Yet, when we watch him channel surfing, it clearly goes beyond that. What’s obviously meant to jump out at us is the sheer mindlessness and idiocy of a culture that worships celebrities and finds nothing funnier than pure stupidity.
Popular culture makes an extremely easy target for this type of argument, and considering this, God Bless America could have done a much better job of satirizing it. The problem is, this film has a basically teenage sensibility. If it had been made by some kid with a $2500 budget, I’d be more forgiving of its simplicity and immaturity. Both Frank and Roxy are constantly having gleeful discussions about who deserves to be killed. The main underlying irony of the film is that it focuses on shows like American Idol as the epitome of decline, while itself displaying a much more fundamental symptom of cultural depravity -the automatic dehumanization of people who you don’t like, agree with or who offend you in any way.
While this is ostensibly a comedy -and there are a few laughs, to be sure- you can’t overlook the fact that Goldthwait is obviously using this movie as a mouthpiece for his own beliefs. Given this, there’s something perverse about advocating wonton violence in the name of kindness. Many of the people who are killed have committed rather minor “crimes,” such as making noise during a movie or taking up two parking spaces. In the final scene, someone is blown away simply because he confesses to a desire to be on TV.
It doesn’t take an intellectual giant to see that modern American culture is largely a wasteland. Unfortunately, God Bless America is more a manifestation of this than an antidote.