Where to begin? I suppose I should get the family tree out of the way. The guy who plays Frank in this (Joel Murray) is the brother of one Bill Murray, whom you may have heard of. I certainly don’t recall seeing Joel in a lot of things but it appears from his bio that he’s done a rather large amount of TV work. I’m going to stick my neck out here and suggest he gets a few more film roles as he really is a rather nifty talent.
The whole thing is dreamed up and directed by none other than Bobcat Goldthwaite. Who he? Well, you may recall he was a successful stand-up comedian in the 80s/90s (depending on your age) and that he took the king’s shilling and ‘starred’ in a couple of the Police Academy movies. He’s done a lot more than that, including the writing and direction of World’s Greatest Dad (2009) so we won’t hold the Police Academy thing against him, honest. It turns out he knows his way around film too.
God Bless America is, for me, the Falling Down (1993) of the 21st century; perhaps not quite as slick or understated but well worth the time. Definitely less “psst, hey, look at this” and more “over here! Look at me Look at me!” That said, it is a compelling watch and even though you’d be a bit slow not to guess how it all pans out, you always feel you’d like to go along for the ride, just to see what happens. Of course, we aren’t going to tell you right out how it goes, oh no.
The story begins with Frank laying on his bed, racked with insomnia and migraine listening once again as his inconsiderate neighbours argue, watch TV loudly and discuss the relative merits of celebrities at full volume. As he puts it a little later in the film: “I am offended. Not because I got a problem with bitter, predictable, whining millionaire disc jockeys complaining about celebrities or how tough their life is, while I live in an apartment with paper-thin walls next to a couple of Neanderthals who, instead of a baby, decided to give birth to some kind of nocturnal civil defense air raid siren that goes off every fucking night like it’s Pearl Harbor.” Frank, we can see, is not a happy man. Divorced from his wife and with a brat of a daughter who doesn’t want to see him, he soon gets fired from his job on trumped-up charges of sexual harassment. Just to top things off nicely, his doctor tells him the reason for his headaches – he has an inoperable and terminal brain tumour. What to do?
I’m not sure what I’d do, but I’m almost sure it’s not what he does. Almost. He’s sick and tired of TV talent contests, racist and/or homophobic ‘shock jocks’, people that prey on the weak and afraid and basically pretty much everything that gets my back up, which is probably why this struck a chord with me. Having seen an episode of American Superstarz in his insomniac channel-surfing, in which a man with obvious mental health issues (Steven Clark, played by Aris Alvarado) is mocked and derided by the audience and panel as he shrieks and muddles his way through Diana Ross’s Theme From Mahogany, Frank snaps. He decides to end it all, but only after teaching a valuable life lesson to the bratty reality show star he saw throwing a hissy fit because she didn’t get the car she wanted for her birthday. Long story short, it doesn’t go quite as planned and in the ensuing confusion and attempted suicide he becomes embroiled with Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr in her film debut), a runaway girl with a carefree and slightly disturbing take on life and how to live it for one so young.
A lot of criticism has been levelled at this movie, some saying its treatment of the social issues raised are too heavy-handed but I would guess those people didn’t bat an eyelid when D-FENS pulled out a rocket launcher in Falling Down.
Sometimes it does feel a little like Goldthwaite is one royally pissed off individual who needs to set a record or two straight but the underlying dark, dark humour tempers it pretty well and it never seems to get to uppity. There are some quite magical set pieces and some very good performances. If you’re a miserable old bastard like me, you’ll get a vicarious kick out of a lot of the content, particularly when Frank wins those all-important petty victories we all know and love. God Bless America may not be perfect but it’s a very cathartic little number. Give it a go.
Bobcat Goldthwaite’s stand-up. (extremely poor quality)