There is something to be said for a film that addresses controversial topics with nothing but righteous, indignant candor. Sometimes toeing a line or trying to be thoughtful of other people’s feelings just gets in the way of getting across not only your point, but your passion.
Unfortunately, in the world of cinema, this impulse toward forthrightness and speechifying needs to be tempered with things like story and pacing and actual plot. Sadly, while God Bless America does move between story points and begin with a beginning and end with a climax, it fails to actually build a successful movie around its succession of speeches, tantrums, and violence.
This shouldn’t have been a difficult task. Director/writer Bobcat Goldthwait had a perfectly crafted narrative on which to hang his treatises and theories. Frank (Joel Murray) is your average working stiff, fed up with his thoughtless neighbors and the cynical, cruel culture that has sprung up around him. After being diagnosed with a brain tumor of some considerable size, Frank decides to murder a pampered reality-star princess and then take his own life. However, after the hit goes down, Frank is persuaded to further mayhem by the charismatic high school student, Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr). Together, they go on a killing spree, taking out anyone they believe is making the world a worse place.
From this jumping off point the world should be this film’s oyster. However, it hamstrings itself almost endlessly. For one thing, it doesn’t have a story so much as a succession of scenes that occur in sequence. The connective tissue between these moments, the story elements that should create an escalating sense of investment or thrills, is completely missing. Frank and Roxy move from place to place without a single hitch. There is no drama in their relationship, or their journey. All they have are their guns, their easy kills, and their speeches.
Oh the speeches. If God Bless America has one fatal flaw it wouldn’t be its shallow politics, beaten-horse ideals, or subpar production values. No, it would have to be the logorrhea. A good speechmaker ought to know that when you have made your point, you wrap up and shut up. Continuing to talk after the point has been delivered only serves to dilute the message or distract the audience. This film does both. There comes a point in each of its numerous tirades when I was stuck thinking to myself, “shut up. I get it. Stop.”
This also leads to another problem with speaking too much – you run the risk of contradicting yourself. Frank seems to think the degeneration of the culture is a recent phenomenon. Yet, in spite of this, he sometimes references Woody Allen’s dalliance with his adopted daughter, as well as Vladimir Nabokov. He also claims that this is a seemingly American occurance, yet his biggest gripe is with a knock-off American Idol competition, which famously has a British man as its most ornery judge. We live in a global society, we import our cruelty from other cultures (look at how early episodes of The Office cribbed from the original UK version). That this film makes no attempt to address or reconcile these ideas is disheartening.
This discord between Frank’s perception of reality and the reality that the film builds around him could have been mined for interest conflict. Instead, it seems to not even realize the internal conflict it created. The film ignores it, and instead lead us to a simplistic climax that lacks any impact or focus.
Sure, there is some fun to be had. The leads are enjoyable and there are some moments of cathartic violence, but other than that it squanders much of the potential it ought to have. In fact, for people who have seen and enjoyed the trailer, I’d give the following advice: just watch it again, and let your imagination fill in the gaps – you’ll be better served.