Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Movie Review: God Bless America

Today's film poses me an interesting dilemma to which I'm not sure I have an answer: To what extent is indulgence and emotional catharsis in film an good thing?

As a director, comedian Bobcat Goldthwait's greatest strength is his unflappable bravery in tackling extreme taboos in his films. Suicide, bestiality, there is no subject matter so dark or so disgusting that the man is unwilling to make light of it. In that respect he is not unlike a modern day John Waters.

However, while this is an admirable trait, it also leads to his greatest weakness as a director, which is that once he has brought up these taboos he very rarely has much of anything to say about them. For example, Sleeping Dogs Lie (our bestiality example) isn't actually about bestiality. It certainly drives the plot, but the subject isn't really discussed in any way. The actual message of the film is that honesty in relationships in overrated, some secrets are just best kept, etc. It's still a refreshingly unconventional sentiment, but the big embarrassing secret the main character hides from her loved ones could really have been anything for all it means to the plot. The fact that it's a carnal act with a dog is really nothing more than a bit of shock value to make the film stand out. Not that I blame him, after all, if your friends tell you "Dude, there's this movie about a chick who sucks off her dog" you're damn well going to remember that.

Likewise, his latest film, God Bless America, is also gratuitously shocking, but is sadly light on discussion. Not that it doesn't have anything to say about the issues it raises, it has plenty to say. The problem is has almost no nuance or self-awareness. It does not discuss the issues, it rants about them. It's so preachy it almost feels like the mirror image of this year's more recent Last Ounce of Courage, backing the opposite viewpoint but with the same strawman arguments.

The film stars Joel Murray, who had previously acted alongside Goldthwait as the comic relief duo in One Crazy Summer. He plays Frank Murdoch, a depressed office worker (is there any other kind?) who's mad at...well, pretty much everything. His irresponsible ex-wife, his spoiled rotten daughter, his rude, obnoxious neighbors, his brainless coworkers, reality television, right-wing political pundits, the tea party, people who talk in the theater; but mostly he's mad at the anti-intellectual society called America that created them all. After finding out he has a terminal brain tumor, he decides to kill himself...but not before taking a few of the brainless, vacuous scumbags that have dragged society into the gutter with him. He is soon joined by Roxy, a paradoxically precocious yet murderously psychotic young girl (and between The Professional, Kick-Ass, and Super, I guess that's officially a trope now) who shares his frustrations and join is his quest. Together they travel the country, gunning down anyone they consider stupid, rude, or just plain annoying.

Now this is a premise that really divides my loyalties. On the one hand, it really appeals to me, because almost everything Frank hates, I hate with equal loathing. On my darker, more depressed days (of which I have far too many), Frank & Roxy's rampage are the exact kind've thing I sit around daydreaming about. I too hate reality television. I too hate people who talk in the theater. I too hate everything about our anti-intellectual culture that lionizes ignorance, simplicity and stagnation, while looking down on intelligence and progress. This movie is my angry id put on screen and I get the feeling I'm not the only one who will react this way.

But is that a good thing? Is it good to indulge our darkest fantasies about inflicting unjustifiable violence on those we hate? Certainly it's not healthy to just bury your feelings, however negative, and pretend they don't exist. But talking about shooting, say, Justin Bieber in the face isn't healthy expression, it's just wallowing in hatred and it's not helping anyone. So is making an entire movie that's essentially about shooting Justin Bieber in the face because he annoys you and his fans annoy you really a good thing?

It certainly isn't helped by the film itself. One might say that this is nothing more than an escapist fantasy. It's no different than any other vigilante film where gun-wielding heroes dish out their own brand of justice. Except instead of Clint Eastwood gunning down rapists and serial killers, it's Joel Murray gunning down reality stars and ignorant political protesters. But at least Dirty Harry was killing people who were guilty of crimes worse than his own. He was clearly the lesser of two evils. No matter how much I may sympathize with Frank's & Roxy's viewpoint, the fact remains that they are casually murdering innocent people (stupid but nonetheless innocent) for the crime of being rude. And there's no irony to any of it. Frank & Roxy never have a moment of introspection, never realize that they've become even worse than the people they go after. There's no supporting characters that speak for an opposing viewpoint. And while the film is indeed satire, that's not to say the film is aware of how despicable their heroes are, like in say Fight Club or Starship Troopers. They are anti-heroes at worse, the lesser evils dishing out well-deserved justice upon their cartoonishly callous victims who have it coming. The film even frames them as a modern day Bonnie & Clyde, right down to the story structure (which is creepy as hell given Roxy's age, but the movie at least shows awareness on that point so I'll let it slide).

Additionally, so many different celebrities, movements, and ideologies get name checked on Frank & Roxy's hit list of potential targets, that after a while is seems no one in the world is safe from these two, including myself. I started to get worried around the time Roxy wanted to go after Diablo Cody (like her her movies or not, she's certainly not in the same category the rest of the slime that are targeted), and by the time they started talking about killing hippies, I was ready to give up. They weren't on some moral crusade against stupidity, ignorance, and celebrity culture anymore, now they were just killing people that mildly annoy them, which really makes them no better than the homophobic and intolerant protesters they would later be killing. Even worse, Frank & Roxy's hypocrisy goes beyond the reprehensibly nature of their overreaction. They rant against attention seekers that want nothing but fame, and yet they are constantly angry when they aren't mentioned on the news, and overjoyed when they get the top story, showing them to be every bit as materialistic and egotistical as their victims.

It might help if the film was disconnected enough from our reality to accept as simply a nihilistically comedic fantasy. You could even argue that Frank actually did kill himself in the beginning and the killing spree that follows is simply a delusion he experiences in his dying moments, or even his own twisted version of "heaven". And it's true the film would never be described as "realistic". Our heroes repeatedly shoot their victims in broad daylight with multiple witnesses and no masks, even being caught on video once, yet the police rarely show up and they never get recognized anywhere they go. But the depictions of the American Idol and Jerry Springer proxy's and such are so dead on, and the reactions, physics, and probability are just real enough to make it very disturbing if you think about it at all. They even add extra details, like Roxy not being strong enough to shot a gun one handed, their action movie schemes not always going according to plan, etc.

My overall point is this: God Bless America is an angry rant of a movie that is designed to indulge the most negative, fruitless emotions of its target audience, and that in itself may not be reason enough for it to exist. It's certainly not going to convert anyone to its way of thinking, anyone who doesn't already agree with Bobcat will just find it offensive, to it's essentially preaching to the choir. Its only function is to take a power fantasy born of frustration with societal woes and put it in on film. It's certainly entertaining if you agree with what's it's saying, but in terms of making any kind of statement, it is functionally useless.

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