Review: Bobcat Goldthwait opens fire with ‘God Bless America’

Bobcat Goldthwait referred to himself as “that guy from ‘Police Academy'” onstage tonight after the premiere of his latest film as a writer/director, “God Bless America,” and it’s interesting to see just how he’s developed as a comic voice in the nearly thirty years I’ve been aware of him.

If you weren’t a big stand-up comedy nerd back in the ’80s, maybe you don’t know what the landscape was like.  There was an explosion of venues coast-to-coast, and as a result, there was suddenly a glut of stand-up comedy.  The new American Dream was suddenly “write a good stand-up set, get on Carson, get your own sitcom, make a mint, and win.”  And much of that stand-up was the same, totally homogenized observational crap that sounded like it came from the same awful jokebook.  The guys who broke through, who really stood out, were guys who came at it from their own particular angle, who had a unique voice.  And if there’s one thing you can say about Bobcat Goldthwait, he absolutely had a unique voice.

I don’t just mean that Grover-on-crack screech of his, either.  Bobcat was a guy who presented himself as the strangest person you would ever see, barely able to control himself long enough to deliver his material, but underneath the howl and the shaking and the social awkwardness, there was something sharp and cutting and honest going on.  And in a time when guys like Sam Kinison and Andrew Dice Clay were selling out big venues, Goldthwait stood out because he didn’t seem to have a mean bone in his body.  Even guys like Eddie Murphy did material that, viewed in hindsight now, beat up on some pretty cheap targets.  I would never call what Goldthwait did “politically correct,” but there was a soul in there somewhere, a genuine understanding that his words had effects on people, and I can’t remember a single time I saw him onstage do something that seemed designed to hurt or belittle someone.

Starting with “Shakes The Clown,” he has carved out a career for himself as a very distinct comic voice in film as well.  I love “Shakes,” and I think it might be the single best film ever made about the world of stand-up comedy.  I took my shot at it and quickly realized that I was not cut out for that world.  It is full of back-biting and in-fighting and so many of these funny people are filled with just-contained anger that they were happy to pour onto you at the slightest provocation.  By removing reality by one step, Goldthwait was able to lacerate himself and the other people in his field with laser accuracy, not to be mean, but in order to be honest.  There is a self-loathing in that film that signaled to me that I would not be seeing much more of Bobcat as a performer, or at least not the version of him that I was familiar with up to that point.  “Sleeping Dogs Lie” is a great look at the way we idealize the people we love, and the way the past can destroy the present if we let it, and it marked a real step forward for him.  I’ve ranted and raved here on HitFix many times about how much I love “World’s Greatest Dad,” one of the saddest funny films I’ve ever seen, and I sat down with Goldthwait at Sundance that year to talk about it.

With “God Bless America,” we’re almost back in “Shakes” territory, because this is not a film set in anything resembling the real world.  It is heightened, and by cranking things up to this absurd extreme, he’s showing us just how bad things have gotten.  I’ve already heard a few complaints from people that some of the things targeted by Goldthwait in the film are easy targets, and that may be true, but the larger point of this film is a reaction to the cruelty of our modern pop culture, and a deeply-felt revulsion at where it feels like we’re headed.  Easy targets or not, “God Bless America” seems to me to be a primal scream, an insane reaction to an insane culture, and when it lands it punches, there is a bracing quality to the laughter it evokes.  Sitting in a theater in Canada, deeply aware that this weekend is the ten year anniversary of 9/11, there was something cathartic about laughing at the way someone cut the brake line on America, now an out-of-control car speeding straight at a wall.  They were laughs of release, and in certain scenes, I found myself laughing just so I wouldn’t cry at how goddamn angry it can make me feel sometimes.

As a father, I worry about what we are handing down to my kids.  I worry about what sort of world they’re growing up in.  I see how so much of what is on the air, even the things aimed at them, instills a sort of instinctual cruelty.  We have embraced mean as the mainstream, almost as a reaction to being attacked.  Why shouldn’t we pick on the weak?  If we weed them out, doesn’t that make us stronger?  The answer is of course not.  It makes us cowards and bullies, but that doesn’t seem to be slowing anyone down at all.  There’s a scene early in the film where Frank (Joel Murray) is flipping through the channels of his television, and it is a barrage of awful.  It is circus freak ugly, and yet it all seems to have a laugh track on it.  When I am in an airport bookstore and I see a stack of Tucker Max books for sale, I want to flip a table over.  How could anyone think, “Hey, maybe I’ll pick that up and read about date rape and sociopathic behavior treated as a joke for a few hours”?  And yet, his books sell.  There is an audience for the blowhard bullies of talking head media on both sides of the non-existent political aisle.  People pretend that a few minor differences of opinion make them totally separate types of people, but the truth is, America has never been more united.  We are united by bad behavior.  We are united by our celebration of the stupid and the small.  And we seem to be accelerating.

Frank is an average guy.  Mid-40s, divorced, working a nothing job.  He’s just trying to get through each day intact, but every waking moment is a slow drip of indignities, and Goldthwait spends the first 20 minutes or so really heaping it onto the poor guy.  It would seem exaggerated, except this is how the world feels these days.  This is what our media screams in our face all the time.  Joel Murray has been around for a lot of years, and for the first part of his career, I think it’s safe to say he was in the shadow of his more famous brother Bill.  But lately, Joel’s been carving out a very particular career for himself, and anyone who knows him from “Mad Men,” where he plays the unfortunate Freddy Rumson, will recognize him here.  There is a great sadness to Joel Murray, and even when he delivers a great punchline, it’s underscored by a palpable sorrow.  He is very, very good in this film, and when Frank is fired from his job and told he has a brain tumor in the same horrible afternoon, he finally snaps.  It’s too much to take.  He goes home, gets his gun, puts it in his mouth…

… and on TV, an episode of what is obviously meant to be MTV’s “Sweet 16” or whatever the hell it’s called stops him cold.  He watches this awful, spoiled, rancid little turd of a human being scream at her parents because they gave her the wrong car, and he takes the gun out of his mouth.  Why kill himself when there are other people whose deaths would genuinely make the world better?  And with that thought driving him, Frank leaves his house, gun in hand, and sets off on a road trip in which he gives voice to all the powerless fury that Goldthwait and so many other decent people must feel when they look around them at this endless Mardi Gras from Hell we call modern life.

Along the way, he meets Roxie (Tara Lynne Barr), a 16-year-old girl who immediately recognizes what he’s doing and wants to join him.  He resists at first, but she’s determined, and she’s so in tune that he can’t deny her the pleasure that he begins to feel as he chips away at these tumors that have made our culture so sick.  As much as I like the moments where they unleash their anger, it is the conversation between the two of them, the ongoing debate about who truly deserves to die in this world, that makes the movie work for me.  I would never, ever advocate violence against another person, no matter how much they wrong me personally or wrong the world in general, but I understand the feeling, and this film is therapeutic in a sense.  Again… there is something strange and almost vital about having seen this film on this particular weekend.  And I don’t believe for a second that the title of the film is ironic.  I think Goldthwait longs for the America that we were sold as kids, a place that believes in the decency of people, that rewards hard work, where you can make something of yourself through sheer force of will, and Frank’s acts of violence aren’t just mindless.  They are designed to sculpt that world out of the shit that covers it so completely now.

As good as Murray is, Barr matches him beat for beat, and she’s got her own tricky ground to cover.  She makes it seem real that Roxie would want to come with Frank, and she makes a great sounding board for him.  Their back-and-forth really works, and Goldthwait’s packed the film with performances that really pop, even if people are only in one scene.  Technically, the film we saw tonight was still a little rough around the edges, a little shaggy, but that’s not necessarily a bad choice.  Something this raw in terms of the sorts of laughs it wants should play a little loose, and it works as an aesthetic.  I think there is a bit of a one-note quality to much of the middle of the  movie, but if you like the note he’s playing, it probably won’t bother you.  It is a film of singular purpose, that much is sure.

By the time we reach the stage of “American Idol” at the end of the film and Frank realizes that even those he wants to help have become infected with this cruelty, the film has more than made its point, and Goldthwait ends it the only way it can end.  An eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind, yes, and once you start killing to solve a problem, you’ll never stop.  Everyone drives someone crazy.  Everyone has their moments where they would be judged and found wanting.  Even Frank can’t stop himself from high-fiving.  This film is not a call for violence… it’s a call for kindness.  It’s a call for courtesy.  It’s a call for consideration, for realizing that we are all sharing this space.  It is a call to look outside yourself, to stop staring into screens all the time, even as we speak to others, and to reconnect.  Americans might be assholes taken one at a time, but America is still something worth considering.  For a crazy blood-soaked comedy, that’s some pretty heady ground to cover.

“God Bless America” is currently seeking distribution.

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