Review – God Bless America (2011)

Director: Bobcat Goldthwait

Starring: Joel Murray, Tara Lynn Barr

God Bless AmericaThe fifth film from comedian turned writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait, God Bless America is the blackest of black comedies. It is also a really strong piece of satire, commenting on the downward spiral of American culture. Goldthwait laments a society which has come to celebrate the loudest, the meanest, the dumbest and the shallowest.

Joel Murray – Bill Murray’s brother (he must hate that every reviewer feels that it is necessary to mention his more famous brother) – plays Frank. Frank’s life is going down the toilet. He is divorced, with a young daughter who doesn’t want to see him. He is diagnosed with a brain tumour. He has grown tired of an American civilisation that is no longer interested in being civilised. Not only does the world around him celebrate cruelty and bigotry, kindness and generosity are treated with suspicion. When he tries to make a nice gesture by sending a bunch of flowers to a woman from work who he thinks looks like she could use some cheering up, he is fired for sexual harassment. It all becomes too much to bear for Joel, and he decides to take his own life. But before going through with it, he comes to the realisation that perhaps the world would be better served if rather than killing himself he killed those who deserved to die. So, joined by an equally disenfranchised teenage girl named Roxy, he travels around the country knocking off reality TV stars, shock jocks and spoilt brats.

What makes Goldthwait’s satirical observations about the state of American culture so effective is that they aren’t exaggerated. They simply don’t need to be. We recognised the degrading reality television programs, the hate-mongering political commentators, the bigoted and intolerant religious conservatives and the general lack of common courtesy in the day to day interactions. When Joel and Roxy rattle off a list of all the groups of people and traits that irritate them you can’t help but nod in agreement (and occasionally sheepishly recognise they are talking about you). Goldthwait doesn’t need to hyperbolise. He doesn’t need to fabricate something that isn’t there. He just puts what we have become used to up in front of our eyes and forces us to acknowledge it.

However, despite the validity of his observations, it could be argued that the execution – pardon the pun – of the satire is slightly flawed. Is the intolerance of our protagonists any different to the intolerance of those they can’t tolerate? The idea that some people deserve to die, even if presented ironically like in this film, is always going to raise problems. Is Joel and Roxy’s course of action, a killing spree that is here presented as a solution, only representative of another troubling aspect of American culture? This question raises another point, and what I think is the number one issue facing Goldthwait’s film.

Sometimes the reception of a movie is impacted by events well beyond the control of its makers, and that is definitely the case here. While God Bless America is a very clever film, and very justified in its social commentary, you can’t help but feel conflicted while watching it. In light of recent events, now more than ever it is difficult to laugh at the idea of Americans shooting each other. Being the kind of film that it is, God Bless America was never destined to be a popular success – it slandered the very audience it would have to have pandered to if it wanted to succeed at the box office – but even within its niche of the market the way it is received will be influenced.

Rating – ★★★★

Review by Duncan McLean

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