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Review: God Bless America (2012)

God Bless America (2012)

Directed by: Bobcat Goldthwait

Premise: A middle aged man and a teenage girl (Joel Murray and Tara Lynne Barr) set out on a shooting spree in which they kill people who they consider repellent such as reality television stars, homophobic religious leaders, and people who talk in movie theaters.

What Works: God Bless America is very much a film of the moment. Writer and director Bobcat Goldthwait has tapped into the zeitgeist of this period in the same way that Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider did in the late 1960s or Oliver Stone’s Wall Street did in the 1980s. God Bless America is more absurd than those examples; this is a dark comedy and it has the same kind of mordant sense of humor as Four Lions, Super, and Goldthwait’s previous film World’s Greatest Dad. In God Bless America, Goldthwait channels the widespread but unfocused rage and disgust that many people have with contemporary culture and the vague sense that America has decayed past the point of redemption. The crusade that the film’s protagonists set upon is in no small way a wish fulfillment fantasy for those who are repulsed by the reality television nation we have become and the allure of God Bless America is its unapologetic assault on that culture. Despite the antagonistic attitude that the film exudes, God Bless America manages an empathetic and in some ways touching central relationship between its two lead characters, played by Joel Murray and Tara Lynne Barr. Murray plays a working class everyman who is overwhelmed by the stupidity around him and God Bless America handles his character just right, setting him up as a sympathetic lead and in the process avoiding a serious pitfall. Pictures that that flirt with nihilism risk disaster, such as 2011’s I Melt with You in which characters with similar trajectories came across as pathetic, whinny, and stupid. Murray’s character in God Bless America is credibly alienated from everything and the character has a unique tension in that his desire for people to be decent has led him to murder. Tara Lynne Barr’s character is also well written and she is more interesting than just another disaffected teenager; she is the product of the very thing she is rebelling against. Together they make a watchable couple that makes God Bless America work as well as it does.   

What Doesn’t: Although God Bless America is rebelling against the status quo the film is not nearly as revolutionary as its makers would like to believe that it is. The film compares unfavorably to similar pictures like Natural Born Killers and Fight Club for a few reasons. The first is that it is simply nihilistic. No film should be required to provide an uplifting conclusion, but God Bless America’s take on culture is shortsighted. As the filmmakers see it, people are awful and there is nothing left to do except cull the herd. Even for viewers who can identify with that sentiment the path to that conclusion is shallow. By comparison, Natural Born Killers set its violent antiheros against a landscape of tabloid media run amok and Fight Club portrayed a revolution against mindless consumerism. By comparison, God Bless America isn’t as bold or coherent. It reflects the rage of contemporary society but it does not provide much insight into it. Secondly, God Bless America lacks the moral chaos necessary for a picture like this. Films about outlaws often employ avant garde cinematic techniques such as the fast paced editing of Bonnie and Clyde or the experimentation of Natural Born Killers, with the purpose of conveying the instability of society. God Bless America is made with a very customary filmmaking style. The lack of cinematic flair keeps the movie’s form even keeled when should get volatile.

Bottom Line: God Bless America is an interesting and potentially important movie of this period of time. It comes up short on revolutionary substance but for anyone who has tuned into the MTV, Bravo, or E! cable networks and wanted to tear their eyeballs out, this film does make for a good, therapeutic howl.

Episode: #389 (May 20, 2012)