Bobcat Goldthwait makes some barbed and highly accurate observations in “God Bless America,” the perverse black comedy about the idiocy of modern culture that he wrote and directed. We have an overdeveloped sensed of entitlement, he says, with no regard for the way our actions affect others. We watch TV shows devoted to the mockery of people whose behavior is bad enough to make us feel better about our own, or who are weaker than we are. “We’ve lost our kindness,” Goldthwait says through his avatar, a beaten-down middle-aged man named Frank (Joel Murray). “We’ve lost our soul.”
Combining the pop-culture parody of “Idiocracy” with the mad-as-hell-and-not-going-to-take-it-anymore frustration of “Network” and “Falling Down,” “God Bless America” has an intriguing formula, but it’s one that’s never fully utilized. The first 20 minutes or so are painfully funny, promising razor-sharp analysis of our declining civilization from the perspective of an experienced observer. But the film doesn’t go anywhere from there. It doesn’t say anything in the last 80 minutes that it didn’t say in the first 20.
Frank is an office drone with an ex-wife and a bratty daughter, a defeated man plagued by migraines and insomnia. He finds 21st-century culture toxic, fixated on shallowness and obsessed with celebrities. Millions of people watch “American Superstarz” every week just to ridicule the latest no-talent loser to be paraded in front of them. Political pundits trade in fear, deception, and vitriol.
Frank fantasizes about unloading a shotgun into the people who make society a hellhole: his ignorant neighbors, the coworkers who repeat whatever “edgy” jokes they heard from the coarse morning DJs on the way to work, the awful teenagers on MTV’s reality programming, not to mention their worthless parents. When he finally acts on one of these impulses, he finds the weight slightly lifted from his miserable shoulders.
He finds a kindred spirit in Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), a spunky teenage runaway who shares his disdain for modern culture and wishes death upon those cheapen it. Frank jokingly calls her Juno, which offends her and gives the movie an excuse to rip into Diablo Cody. (“The only stripper who suffers from too much self-esteem.”) Sometimes you get the feeling Goldthwait is just making a list of the people he could do without, which is funny and makes you nod your head but doesn’t add up to much.
That’s the movie in a nutshell, really. On a surface level, it appeals to the elitist tendencies in all of us, earning laughs (often dark, DARK laughs) in the process. Yet Frank is the same at the end of the film as he was at the beginning, having made no progress, having learned nothing about himself or the world around him. Static characters make poor protagonists — unfortunate, given how fine-tuned and sympathetic Joel Murray’s performance is. I had the same thought when the movie was over that Frank probably has on a regular basis: Is this all there is?
B- (1 hr., 40 min.; )