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God Bless America - review

A lazy love letter to liberalism.

God Bless America (15)

dir: Bobcat Goldthwait

Witnessing the attempts at satire in God Bless America is comparable to finding a slug reading Schopenhauer: the disparity between intention and achievement is so vast it’s touching. Like the anti-heroes of Network and Falling Down, Frank (Joel Murray) rails against the modern world and appoints himself a defender of defunct values. Each night, he flicks through hundreds of channels of trash: talent shows celebrating the untalented, reality programmes conferring fame on the feckless. Frank prides himself on his intelligence but it hasn’t occurred to him to watch something else. How about HBO? The US also has some thought-provoking radio programmes. Books are good.

But no. He subjects himself to the sleaziest excesses of television and then grumbles about what he’s seen, which is like moving into an abattoir and complaining about the pong. Frank’s campaign against the irritations in his life graduates from imagined to actual violence when he murders the obnoxious teenage star of a reality series. The victim’s classmate Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr) gives a cheer and joins him on a killing spree that takes in the religious right, a vituperative TV anchorman and the judges and audience on an X-Factor-style show.

Roxy isn’t a character so much as a personification of that moment when the film’s writer-director, Bobcat Goldthwait, watched Kick-Ass and fell a little bit in love with the idea of a schoolgirl swearing and killing people. She’s obviously acting as his mouthpiece when she sings the praises of Alice Cooper, or disparages the teen comedy Juno. Now, Juno was as bogus as they come but the idea that God Bless America is any more authentic or acerbic is the only funny idea in the movie. Goldthwait should have spent less time shoehorning his grudges into the script and more time making sure his film wasn’t simply caressing liberal egos.

Surely even those who believe The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to be fully fledged satire rather than the news read in a shouty and sarcastic voice will not be flattered or hoodwinked by the picture’s love letter to liberalism. A safer and more partial movie it would be difficult to imagine. In the days before Frank blows a fuse, several things happen that are designed to ingratiate him with the audience. He loses his job after sending flowers to a depressed co-worker. Then he calls his daughter, who lives with his ex-wife, only to find that the child would rather play a computer game than talk to him. Finally he is told he has a brain tumour by a doctor who breaks off mid-diagnosis to make an abusive phone call. Cruel boss, unfeeling daughter, insensitive physician: are you on Frank’s side yet?

How audacious the film could have been if it had acknowledged the masochism in its hero’s actions rather than presenting them as a principled response to a supposedly depraved society. Instead the film sanctifies Frank. He rages against those who are “scared of foreigners or people with vaginas” (though he makes a misogynistic comment about his ex-wife) and brags about taking his daughter to the zoo while her mother’s chief contribution is to buy her a BlackBerry; it’s as though the script were polished by Fathers 4 Justice.

The central idea, about using violence to instil manners and respect in society, could be funny and has been before: in John Waters’s Serial Mom, a wholesome housewife battered to death her neighbours for forgetting to rewind videotapes or wearing inappropriate footwear. But the supposed humour in God Bless America lies in the wretchedness of Frank’s targets.

Once he is machine-gunning anyone whose ideology fails to chime with his, you can’t help feeling that Anders Behring Breivik would approve of the execution, if not the emphasis.

The film-makers also appear not to have noticed that Frank’s project to restore decency can be punctured by a single exchange from Friends in which Monica and Chandler rhapsodise about raising a family far from the city:

Monica: We want a lawn and a swing set.
Chandler: And a street where our kids can ride their bikes, and maybe an ice cream truck can go by.
Ross: So you want to buy a house in the 1950s?

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Honey, I shrunk the Tories