Sunday, August 5, 2012

Review: God Bless America

Easy Targets

Image Courtesy of Magnet Releasing

Have you ever felt pop culture is stupefying at an alarming rate? Do the endless reality shows, religious zealotry and ignorant political scaremongering get you down? Would you like to see a funny, subversive and provocative cinematic satire of these issues? I know I would! God Bless America is not that film.

Things start off relatively promisingly. With a few amusing satires of lowest-common-denominator televisual excretion, alongside a genuinely bold and bloody shock, it seems that director Bobcat Goldthwait (previously responsible for the much more engaging and surprising World's Greatest Dad) may actually be willing to engage in a no-holds-barred deconstruction of modern culture. Alas, the opening act is the best the writer / director has to offer. The rest can be summarised distressingly briefly: unemployed, dying Frank (Joel Murray) embarks on killing spree of modern society's most irritating individuals, alongside his young, hyperactive sidekick Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr). There isn't much more to it than that.

Here we have a motion picture devoid of dramatic or even comedic momentum. It's a one-joke, one-note film stretched out to 100 minutes. It's surface level satire, that frequently suggests that its going to engage with something more challenging, but it never does. The gag is rarely any more elaborate than lengthy dialogues bluntly preaching the inanity of this and that. 'Hey, aren't people who talk in the cinema awful?' 'Aren't those Westboro zealots ignorant?' Yes, I agree, but is that really all you have to say, Goldthwait? It seems so. Instead, we're treated to another massacre of parodies of pop cultural icons. It's funny first time around, but gets tiring quickly. Particularly oddly, the only pop cultural savior suggested by the film is Alice Cooper of all people. Not exactly the best alternative culture has to offer, surely?

Frank & Roxy embark on their killing spree minus consequence or pursuit. Not all comedies need dramatic arcs if the laughs are frequent enough. But here everything just comes across as lazily scripted - half-assed attempts to convincingly amble from one unsurprising set piece / victim to the next. It eventually results in the inevitable stand-off on the stage of a televised talent show parody. It's not funny, exciting or unexpected enough to elicit anything other than an embarrassed grimace at the cheap Simon Cowell caricature.

There's an attempt to flesh out the relationship between Roxy and Frank, but again it rarely pays dividends. Through teen Roxy, Goldthwait seemingly attempts to comment on the over-sexualisation of the youth. Alas, it was a subject handled with more aplomb in the vastly superior Super. Joel Murray, meanwhile, turns in a mostly mild-mannered performance at odds with his psychopathic actions. The first act semi-succeeds in establishing him as a put-upon, frustrated protagonist. But his later actions are never critiqued enough, and the buddy comedy at the centre of the film therefore rarely resonates as the character's quickly become unlikeable mass murderers. 

It's such a shame the film largely fails to resonate, as many of its ideas are curious. Many - myself included - can only nod in acknowledgement at the basic frustrations encountered by the characters. There's a few attempts to delve deeper. The way the media subverts the duo's actions to further their own political / cultural agenda is convincingly explored in one scene (with a news station farcically assigning blame to a 'violent' documentary about the Vietnam war), although isn't built on. Goldthwait also occasionally shows hints of directorial flair. In a great shot, Frank realises his own estranged daughter is a spoiled, ignorant brat while a Super Sweet 16-eseque show plays out of focus in the background. Alas, these potentially fruitful family dynamics are promptly ignored.

God Bless America frequently threatens to be an effectively guilty pleasure: a dismantling of American ideologies and a damning critique of mass cultural stagnation. Instead, it goes for the easy targets, and the result is a film largely devoid of laughs or drama. Its basic intentions are pure, but the aim is off.

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