Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Bobcat Goldthwait's GOD BLESS AMERICA proves the cultural vigilante's wet-dream

If you thought Bobcat Goldthwait's earlier films -- Sleeping Dogs Lie and The World's Greatest Dad -- were transgressive, wait till you get a load of GOD BLESS AMERICA, his latest combination of smackdown and provocation. Up yours, America, would seem to be the message here, and there are going to be a lot of Americans who welcome and agree with it. It is not, I think, the problematic America of decades past at which Bobcat is directing his middle finger, not the America that simultaneously held such promise and despair, but today's USA, which promises only more despair -- no matter which crappy politicians the wealthy and corporate manage to grease into office. Ah, but Mr. Goldthwait, pictured below, has just the remedy we need.

A very good friend of mine with whom I attended the press screening -- he's an intelligent, cranky, 70-year-old with relatively high standards -- announced to me as the end credits finished rolling, "I have never seen a movie that was more about me."  That my friend is also a mild-mannered picture of civility, while the me of the movie is a rampaging, murderous vigilante is, well, something that should give us all pause. The movie itself will give us shocking, gut-busting laughs, as its "hero," fed up with the increasing stupidity and incivility of the modern world takes it upon himself (with a little unasked-for help from a local high-school girl) to, as the movie's priceless tag line puts it, "take out the trash, one jerk at a time."

The thing I like best about Bobcat as a filmmaker is that he lets the chips fall where they may. If he tackles a problem, he really wrestles with it. With each new film, he's grown more disciplined until, in this one, he's decided to take no prisoners. His filmmaking skill may still remain below his talent as a provocateur, and that's just fine. We already have plenty of skilled movie-makers. We don't have nearly as many hypocrisy-puncturers and balls-to-the-wall social critics like Mr. Goldthwait. 

My cranky but civil friend remarked on the filmmaker's occasional lack of continuity (something my longtime companion is also skilled at noting, while I am not), but let's talk about what's really good about this film -- in addition to its premise and execution. That would start with its well-chosen leading man: Joel Murray (above, and bro of Bill), who proves an inspired choice for the role of Frank. He gets exactly right the sense of "otherness" that eventually engulfs and then appears to becalm those of us who will identify with Frank. Really, though, this calm only masks our anger at the world around us, where black is now white, good evil, corporations humans and so much else touted as true that is patently false. And all of it as uncivil as can be -- from our schools to the workplace to television entertainment (below).

Murray goes from very believable, quiet sadness to depression, into fantasy and from there into action -- without missing a step along the way, And we're with him too, and much further along in his crazy, violent endeavor than we might expect.

As his partner in crime, Roxy, an "outsider" high-school student who has her own reasons for going on the rampage with Frank, Tara Lynne Barr is a good foil for Murray's gravity and odd grace. Her character is nowhere near as strong as his, however, but the act-ress is charged with enough energy and charm to carry us along.

Other than our two vigilantes, most of the rest of the cast are the victims (save the notably uninterested medical professional, above) -- and a scurvier, clueless, more entitled bunch of scumbags would be hard to find. Which of course makes us not care for them while they're with us and mourn them not at all when they're gone. As the film moves along, it becomes clearer what Frank's rationale really is. I'll use only one scene -- in the movie theater -- for emphasis so as not to spoil anything else.

It is not the political view of the other guy (or gal) that the filmmaker and his hero disdain unto death. No, it's the lack of civility these people bring to the table (and everywhere else they go). In that movie theater, a group of rowdy, thoughtless teens won't shut up during the movie. One young woman in their party desists and suggests that her companions tone it down. She is spared, and they are "offed." Another patron in the theater, although he made no noise and was not rude, decides to use his cell phone camera to record the carnage: bye-bye. Priorities, people!

There's a weird morality at work here. Or course, we root for the vigilantes, even though we know they've gone too far. But there is also a great release, a catharsis of sorts, to be found in what's going on.  This is most profoundly true during the American Idol-like satire in which a fat, talent-free contestant (below) is unmercifully mocked by all. What happens to him -- and why and with whose help -- may be Bobcat's most vicious, yet saddest, comment on the depths to which we can sink.

God Bless America is funny, all right, but it succeeds best as a nasty, no-holds-barred satire, the edge of which cuts us all. The film opens this Friday, May 11, in a dozen major cities across the country, with many more to come in the weeks that follow. (In New York City, it's playing at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema.)   Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters.

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