Had Falling Down been made by the goofs behind National Lampoon it might have turned out something like this black comedy, which posits itself on the side of intelligence, but is arguably just as inane as the pop-cultural figures it mercilessly assassinates, argues contributor Ed Wall.
“America has become a cruel and vicious place.”
So speaks Frank (Joel Murray), the protagonist in Bobcat Goldthwait’s gory, silly and occasionally hilarious is-it-or-is-it-not-a-B-movie God Bless America. Frank, a middle-aged divorcee, finds himself at odds with a contemporary America whose vapid culture leaves him cold. Yearning for something more than his anodyne life, he has no outlet. He’s surrounded by morons. His pubescent daughter is a bitch. He’s a passive victim of our modern mediaocracy: unable to stomach the quality of the programming, yet still compulsively watching the television at night. When Frank is forcefully retired from his beige office job and told he has terminal cancer on the same day (ouch), our grey suburban ‘hero’ decides enough is enough and tools up. Soon he finds himself joined by disaffected teenager Roxy (Tara Lynn Barr), an intelligent outcast with an unhealthy taste for bloodshed.
Painted in the broadest strokes, Frank and Roxy’s rampage through a culturally deficient USA is on the one hand far less shocking than it imagines it is, but also more covertly sinister than it appears. Besides spending the duration wondering quite which America it is Frank might be sentimentalising about, there’s an uncomfortable sense that, despite the schlocky feel, the film is actually taking itself reasonably seriously while ultimately upholding the values of the culture it rails against. This leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.
Over the course of two hours we’re ‘treated’ to the slayings of various token hate figures including, but not limited to, a far-right religious group with God Hates Fags signs, some Tea Party members and a fat man who may or may not be excusing paedophilia. These set pieces are executed (excuse the pun) with all the snappy dialogue you’d expect from a veteran of the stand-up scene, and decent acting from the two leads (particularly Barr, who endows Roxy with a needs-to-be-loved emotional vulnerability as the flipside to her downtrodden arrogance).
However, in keeping with the trashy pulp aesthetic, there doesn’t seem to be any point to all the violence. The film, ultimately, is trying to say something without wanting to be seen to be trying to say something. In advocating exactly the same response to a problem that a prevalent strain of American ideology demands, the film had the potential to be highly satirical. However, the nagging suspicion that for all the protagonists’ ‘journeying’ this isn’t really going anywhere is confirmed by a weak final third, replete with all-too predictable twist.
Making a film about the decline of culture that is itself artless, pointless and throwaway is either an unflinchingly brave act of postmodern artistry or a beautifully ironic faux pas, on a level with Alanis Morissette’s infamous, blundering misuse of the word ‘ironic’. It’s child’s play simply to list all the things you’re against in order to create a groundswell of sympathy amongst like-minded others (ask Vice magazine). Too much in God Bless America is rooted in the same divisive rabble-rousing actually employed by right-wing organisations like the Tea Party.
God Bless America, then, is not the wholly satirical deployment of the phrase that it might appear. I found myself wondering, in view of all of the recent unforgivable loss of human life, not least the truly abhorrent acts committed by the Assad regime in Syria, and those by Anders Breivik in Norway: is there not some kind of solution we can come to that doesn’t involve killing everyone?
God Bless America is in cinemas now. It is also available on DVD from July 9.