I couldn’t agree more with the outrage in Bobcat Goldthwait’s “God Bless America,” nor like his movie less. What might have been a stinging, five-minute sketch on, say, “Funny or Die” gets feature-length treatment here. It makes you appreciate how movies as diverse as “Natural Born Killers,” “Taxi Driver” and “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” more convincingly portrayed American psychopathy. (Oh, yeah — add “American Psycho” to the list, too.)
Goldthwait begins with an acid look at our culture of insta-celebrity, social incivility and unmerited entitlement. Middle-aged, divorced Frank (Joel Murray) puts himself to bed each night numbed by the idiocies flooding his TV screen. They include fictionalized versions of reality shows such as “My Super Sweet 16” and “Jackass,” fear-mongering Fox-style “news” shows, and anything devised by Simon Cowell — here represented by a bullying sing-a-thon called “American Superstars.”
These are easy targets, sure, but it’s hard to argue that this sort of programming has coarsened our nation’s character and lowered the level of civil discourse. It’s how Frank reacts that sends the movie on a path of diminishing, bloody return.
Provoked partly by the me-me-me entitlement of his own young daughter, Frank snaps and shoots to death the spoiled teenage star of a show who complained on camera that the car her parents bought for her on her 16th birthday wasn’t a Cadillac Escalade. The murder is witnessed by the girl’s classmate Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr).
Instead of calling the cops, Roxy follows Frank to his hotel and offers herself up as his lil’ assistant assassin. The character owes a debt to both Chloë Moretz’s Hit-Girl in “Kick-Ass” and Ellen Page’s murderous sidekick to Rainn Wilson in “Super” — satiric films that also (facilely) take on vigilantism. They suffer weaknesses similar to those that cripple “God Bless America,” but both are better movies.
In short (but long-seeming) order, Frank and Roxy hit the highway, putting bullets into tea partiers and (yay!) obnoxious cell-phone yackers in cineplexes. The movie never really pauses to consider that the ease with which people can shoot one another in this country is a much bigger, bloodier issue to address than that of our debased culture. The closest it comes is in a scene that shows Frank buying assorted firearms from a dealer in a hotel room — a riff that explicitly copies one from Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.” (He’s uncredited, but the arms seller may even be the actor from that movie.) This represents a huge miscalculation on Goldthwait’s part: you do not want to invoke a movie (much less a filmmaker) so superior.
Granted, “God Bless America” has its guilty pleasures. But if you haven’t heard the names of its two lead actors before, there’s a reason. As murderous sad sack Frank, Murray (brother of Bill and John) is recessive and inert. By contrast, young, pie-faced Barr is hyper and shrill. The disparity between their acting styles creates a charisma vacuum that’s only one of this movie’s problems.
“God Bless America.” With Joel Murray, Tara Lynne Barr. Written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait. Rated R. 104 minutes. At Plaza Theatre.