Giving Up on America in God Bless America

God Bless AmericaLast night, I had a curious reaction to a recent Bobcat Goldthwait film, God Bless America. For those unfamiliar with it, it is a “black comedy.” But that hardly captures the essence of the film that pushes the limits of even that very broad category. It tells the story of Frank Murdoch, a quiet and polite man whose problems in his personal life lead him to kill an annoying reality TV star. The event is witnessed by precocious teenager Roxy Harmon and the two of them go on a killing spree—mostly of people whose main crime is that they just aren’t nice.

Perhaps the best scene in the film takes place in a movie theater where the duo go to see a documentary about the My Lai Massacre. Four of the five people watching the film are rude in various ways. So while the song “It’s Oh So Quiet” plays, Frank shoots them all (Roxy is not yet proficient with a gun). Before leaving the theater, he speaks to the terrified survivor, “Thanks for not talking during the feature. Thanks for turning off your cell phone.” She says, somewhat confused, “You’re welcome.” And they leave. Despite memories of the 2012 Aurora shooting (which took place after the film was released), it is an incredibly funny scene:

I enjoyed the whole film. Goldthwait squeezes a lot of humor out of his idea. It is more than just the gut laughs of the over-the-top violence and the catharsis of people like Bill O’Reilly, Simon Cowell, and Honey Boo Boo getting their due. The film is also sweet with humor more like Little Miss Sunshine than Natural Born Killers. It also puts in some interesting speeches strategically throughout the film so that no one can miss the satire and message of the film.

Where it all fails is in its theme. Ultimately, Goldthwait doesn’t seem to understand that his characters are no more heroes than William Foster in Falling Down. Frank doesn’t like what the society has become, but what he would prefer is only slightly different. Yes, our culture is coarse and insipid. But there is no indication that Frank is anything but insipid himself. Roxy is just an ignorant youth with cliched views. Their frustration is understandable. But there is nothing revolutionary in their thinking. And what does the film ultimately have to say on the issues that it raises? As far as I can tell, it is cynical about the issues: there is nothing we can do about our society, so it is enough to enjoy this fantasy about killing all of the people who annoy us.

And I did enjoy it. I especially liked its postmodern self-reference—being exactly what it claims to hate. And it portrayed the relationship of the two main characters with great sensitivity. Ultimately, it represents all that it is good and bad about Bobcat Goldthwait. He isn’t a great thinker, but he’s a funny guy in ways that while distasteful are ultimately delicious.

Afterword

Here is “It’s Oh So Quiet” from Happy Texas:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *