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A violent tirade against the many ills afflicting American culture, Bobcat Goldthwait‘s latest provocation God Bless America starts off with most right-thinking viewers in its corner but will lose many well before the end. That’s not due to its vigilante visions or intellectual elitism but because — especially unforgivable in a film calling for smarter discourse — it explores its themes so poorly. A niche theatrical run might draw fans of Goldthwait’s previous work, this effort isn’t likely to get as much help from critics as those sometimes did.
The film is kept afloat mainly by sad-eyed Joel Murray, whose performance operates on a deeper, more thoughtful level than everything around him. He plays Frank, a Syracuse salaryman who can’t help channel-surfing through the decline of Western Civilization: Not-quite veiled stand-ins for Bill O’Reilly, American Idol, and various reality TV shows are sapping his will to live, and a doctor’s report that he has an inoperable brain tumor pushes him over the edge.
He’s just about ready to swallow a bullet when he decides to take one hateful TV icon out with him. His (comically clumsy) killing of a reality-series high school princess attracts the attention of Roxy (Tara Lynn Barr), who convinces him he shouldn’t stop there. The two become platonic May/September partners in crime, jaunting cross-country in a stolen Mustang and killing everyone from the deeply evil (a hate-spewing evangelist) to the merely annoying. (A scene in which inconsiderate moviegoers are gunned down was lost on a few attendees of the first press-and-industry screening, who kept texting throughout the film.)
The movie never seems interested in plausibility, but lazy plotting (the killers have their pictures on TV early in the spree, but nobody ever notices them) and an unconvincing performance from Barr keep it from achieving even a Heathers-like believability within its own universe. What’s left are hollow scenes of vicarious vengeance against perpetrators of real-world vapidity and hypocrisy.
The film’s larger failing isn’t aesthetic but moral. In their early scenes together, as the two rattle off vast categories of people to kill, viewers will see what the movie never overtly confronts: Once you start killing (or, for the rest of us, mentally judging) faceless categories of people who annoy you on a certain level, it’s awfully hard to find the threshold at which annoyance is forgivable.
As Roxy talks giddily about eliminating people who give high fives or like country music, you have to wonder: At what point will she get around to calling for the death of filmmakers who can’t follow through on an interesting idea?
Bottom Line: Semi-comic fantasia of violence against vapid pop culture can’t do justice to its own ideas
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production Company: Darko Entertainment.
Cast: Joel Murray, Tara Lynne Barr, Larry Miller, Geoff Peirson, Melinda Page Hamilton.
Director-screenwriter: Bobcat Goldthwait.
Producers: Sean McKittrick, Jeff Culotta, Sarah de Sa Rego, Jim Goldthwait.
Executive producers: Ted Hamm, Richard Kelly.
Director of photography: Bradley Stonesifer.
Production designer: Natalie Sanfilippo.
Editor: Jason Stewart.
Sales: Preferred Content, Cassian Elwes.
No rating, minutes.
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