I think I first became aware of Bobcat Goldthwait when he appeared on the seminal sitcom Married… with Children as one of Peg Bundy’s many degenerate relatives from the Wanker family. His uniquely grizzled and whinnying voice sticks in the memory, like Gilbert Gottfried’s or Sam Kinison’s (both Married alums, incidentally), and it seems to have been genetically transferred to Charlie of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, breaking through in the illiterate janitor’s most strained, frantic moments. It bespeaks sincerity, frazzle, anger, and hard luck all at once. The comics who appeared on Married—a show that prefigured the amorality of Seinfeld and It’s Always Sunny as well as the poverty of Malcolm in the Middle and Raising Hope—expressed something about what was happening in Reagan and Bush’s America in a voice that was shrill, unruly, raucous, and difficult to contain.
Goldthwait has been a prolific writer, actor, director, and comedian ever since, hailing from just the sort of working class family in Syracuse that was brought low by deindustrialization and diminished expectations in Married… with Children’s Chicago. His films have centered on some of the darkest and most twisted themes imaginable, from alcoholism and addiction to bestiality and suicide. (His 1992 movie Shakes the Clown was a favorite of Michael Stipe, who says it inspired the ragged S&M romp “Binky the Doormat” from R.E.M.’s underrated New Adventures in Hi-Fi.) But in the new film God Bless America (2011), Goldthwait attempts a high-wire commentary on the coarseness and ugliness of contemporary American life that strays dangerously close to reality.
The film stars Joel Murray, who is perhaps best-known as the alcoholic adman on Mad Men who lost his job after pissing himself during a dinner with a client. Murray has made a career out of playing schlumpy sad-sacks, and God Bless America is a commentary on his typecasting in much the same way that Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love was a riff on the explosively angry doofus character of so many of Adam Sandler’s films. In the film, Murray’s character, Frank Murdoch, is a low level white-collar worker who is divorced and has a wretched child who doesn’t want to see him. His neighbors watch moronic reality TV at full blast all hours of the day, which, along with Frank’s migraines, prevents him from getting any sleep. He lies awake watching the most degrading TV, from reality contestants who throw used tampons at each other to a disgustingly spoiled teen named Chloe who berates her parents for getting her a Lexus instead of an Escalade.
When Frank loses his job due to a misinterpreted act of kindness, and then receives a fatal medical diagnosis, he resolves to end it all and puts a gun in his mouth. But at a critical moment he decides to take a few people down with him. He’s disgusted by Americans who jealously protect their right to “pick on the weak like a bunch of fucking pack animals,” a country where “a shocking comment has more weight than the truth.” He can’t comprehend his crass co-workers who laugh at and ridicule mentally challenged contestants who audition for an American Idol-like singing competition, and who endlessly repeat the same vicious, tasteless catchphrases from TV and radio. Frank decides to murder the Lexus-hating Chloe, who is the star of a show much like Super Sweet 16 (a program that Goldthwait said inspired him to write the film).
Through various twists and turns, Frank ends up murdering the hopelessly self-absorbed, ungrateful rich girl and her parents; in the process, he takes on a teenage sidekick, Roxy, who hated Chloe and dreams of going on a rampage against all the people she hates. Roxy’s dislikes are much broader, though; she’d like to take out women who refer to their breasts as “the girls” (hi, Stacy London) and people who high-five. Frank, on the other hand, just wants to eliminate people who are mean-spirited and uncivil, like an O’Reilly-esque political commentator who thrives on propagating hatred and fear. Their quest, unsurprisingly, goes off the ethical rails very quickly; a few jerks who talk on their cell phones loudly in a theater during a screening of a Vietnam documentary get mercilessly knocked off by Frank and Roxy, and politicians and pundits subsequently wonder if it was the gratuitous violence of a documentary about the Vietnam War that prompted the killings.
Goldthwait dances around the issue of morality in the film, although the absurdity of a man killing in the same of civility comes through loud and clear. (The rightwing pundit who Frank and Roxy murder in Central Park says that it’s because of his politics that they want to kill him; while that may be true of Roxy, Frank says it’s just because he’s not nice. In fact, he agrees with some of the pundit’s views; for instance, Frank says, quite sincerely, that he’d like less gun control—right before he shoots the man in the face.) Still, there is a clear sense of catharsis that the audience enjoys by watching cruel, mean-spirited, or just inconsiderate people get knocked off—the same way that we may momentarily fantasize about doing bad things to the people that piss us off in every day life. Frank and Roxy take out the usual insipid suspects—the reality TV stars and political blowhards—but one wonders how the film would be received if it featured an explicitly conservative duo traveling around the country to take out liberal gadflies like Barbra Streisand or Michael Moore. Such a “satire” of indiscriminate killing might seem less humorous to left-leaning viewers and considerably darker and more disturbing.
That is a small caveat to make for a film that clearly embraces a gonzo jumble of Bonnie & Clyde and Natural Born Killers. It holds up the grotesque inhumanity and cruelty of our contemporary celebrity-obsessed and loser-bashing society with a ridiculous solution in much the same way as Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal.” The ultimate conclusion of the film involves an orgy of violence that makes the moral imperative of Frank’s murdering spree simultaneously clearer and more muddled—he ends up taking out both the willing participants in reality TV’s degradation and the audience, where the line between those directly responsible (the producers and hosts) and the “victims” and consumers becomes virtually meaningless. Almost everyone is implicated, even poor security guards who are just trying to make a living.
Taken on its own terms, God Bless America’s satire is entertaining and thought-provoking. Yet in the context of this country’s ongoing paroxysm of mass murder, it is harder to place the film in a larger social context. How different is Frank from Jared Loughner or James Holmes, the perpetrators of the Tucson and Aurora killings? The film makes Frank a relatable and even sympathetic character, despite the fact that he kills numerous people who, on the most superficial level, “deserve” it (like a nasty man who tries to solicit Roxy as an underage prostitute), along with vast numbers of people who have done nothing more to merit execution than being thoughtless, insensitive, or in the wrong place at the wrong time. What would we think of a movie that fictionalized Loughner, the would-be assassin of Gabrielle Giffords, as a comic and identifiable figure, who just happened to go off on an unethical jag of killing his political opponents? Then again, back in the 1960s, Jean-Luc Godard could make films about New Left radicals plotting political assassinations and a bourgeois couple scheming the murder of their parents (and each other) without raising too much of a fuss. But that was the 1960s, in a time when major political figures were being shot left and right and both the left and the right around the world weighed the use of violence as a political tool. When John Lennon said, “When you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you count me out… in,” in 1968, he was addressing a real conversation of his and Godard’s time.
This is all a long way from the civility and compromise that Barack Obama promised in his first campaign for president, but God Bless America represents in exuberant, anarchic form the destructive impulses that course through American politics in the age of “Yes We Can” and the Tea Party, of gun-toting “preppers” and the Occupy movement. Frank and Roxy’s killing spree may be morally grotesque, but it captures something of the zeitgeist of a violent country in a nasty and ongoing quarrel with itself.