Big Screen Berkeley: God Bless America

The message of "God Bless America" should resonate deeply with Berkeley lefties

Remember Bobcat Goldthwait? Back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s Bobcat was a stand-up comedy star, an HBO prime time staple, and an ensemble cast member of the godawful, but guiltily pleasurable, Police Academy movies. Along with the late Sam Kinison, the long-haired, gravel-throated Goldthwait was one of the MTV generation’s most popular comedians, his political edginess suggesting he could have inherited George Carlin’s throne.

Goldthwait retired from stand-up some years back, but his dark comic visions of a country gone off the rails have continued via a handful of acerbic if inconsistent features he’s written and directed, including Shakes the Clown (1992) and World’s Greatest Dad (2009). His latest film, God Bless America, opens at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, May 11th — and the good news is that it’s his best behind-the-camera effort yet.

Heavy-set Joel Murray headlines as Frank, a middle-aged Syracuse insurance salesman who’s mad as Hell and isn’t sure if he can take it anymore. Driven to distraction by his Lindsay Lohan obsessed neighbors and their mewling infant, Frank fantasizes about ending their miserable lives, but instead goes to work for another day of annoying water-cooler chat about last night’s TV lowlights, including the latest victim of the ‘American Superstarz’ fame machine.

His day takes a far worse turn, however, when he’s unexpectedly fired for alleged sexual harassment of the company receptionist. And that’s not all: that afternoon, Frank’s doctor tells him he has an inoperable brain tumor.

Unemployed and with nothing to live for, Frank now has sufficient time on his hands to plot revenge against the people he believes are destroying civilization: reality show contestants, loud-mouthed right-wing radio hosts, and (of course) the judges of ‘American Superstarz’. Joining forces with disaffected teen Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), Frank begins to cut a deadly swath from coast to coast — last stop, Hollywood.

Despite Frank’s contempt for pop culture, however, he can’t help but be influenced by it. He’s a guy who loves Star Trek, loathes Juno, leaves the TV on every night, and listens to the same hot talk radio troglodytes everyone else listens to, even though Frank knows that — disliking neither foreigners nor people with vaginas — he’s not their target audience.

Goldthwait’s writing is also deeply informed by the very things he hates. In addition to a series of wickedly accurate boob tube satires (which push the envelope just far enough without tipping over into absurdity), he also includes references to Bonnie and Clyde, Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, JFK and Jackie O, Charles Whitman, and Roger Corman’s Attack of the Giant Leeches. Most significantly, God Bless America lifts entire plot points from Richard Colla’s Zig Zag, a 1970 drama in which George Kennedy portrayed a brain tumor victim trying to make things right before shuffling off his mortal coil.

In other words, both Goldthwait and Frank’s motives must be questioned. Despite Frank’s disregard for celebrity culture, he still makes it to Tinsel Town for his own brush with fame — and, while I’m fairly certain Bobcat’s heart is in the right place, surely there’s a small part of him hoping his film becomes the midnight movie cult classic of a new generation. If the moral of the story seems a little muddled, however, the message is clear – and it’s one that will resonate deeply with Berkeley lefties.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.  

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