Bobcat Goldthwait’s “God Bless America” played in the inimitable Midnight Madness at this year’s TIFF. Maybe it’s just safer to use Canada to open a story of a blood-soaked killing spree motivated by the alleged base evil of American popular culture. Thankfully the Midnight Madness stamp helps as a reminder not to take premises too seriously. I watched it as a caper rather than a satire, which is most definitely what I would recommend.
Frank (Joel Murray) is divorced and lives alone through a duplex wall from his loutish neighbors and their perpetually screaming baby. He fantasizes violence against them. He has trouble sleeping. His routine is to take sleeping pills and slump in insomniac stupor in front of a TV that shows shrill wall-to-wall reality TV: we are treated to broad parodies of the state of the art of that genre. The Kardashians come in for particularly harsh treatment. The targets are easy, but the jokes are so relentless that it doesn’t matter.
At work Frank’s colleagues spout recycled soundbites from talk radio and discuss the film’s version of “American Idol”. He fantasizes violence against them too. Frank delivers a blistering, eloquent, whining rant to his cubicle mate on incivility and stupidity. We are in wish-fulfillment territory, Frank our champion against the vapidity of mass media culture. Then Frank is fired, and somehow this is the best joke so far. Where a film like “Idiocracy”, with similar targets but a different approach, asks little more than that we agree that everything and everyone is stupid, Frank’s outsize misanthropy is occasionally challenged and skewered. Worse is to come: his migraines are apparently the product of a brain tumor. His young daughter is beginning to bear an unnerving resemblance to the entitled teenaged star of one of the reality TV shows on his insomniac dial.
Frank steals his neighbors’ car, drives through the night, and kills the star. We’re off! He intends to kill himself too, but he is interrupted by Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr). She saw the killing, she approves, and she wants to join Frank to deliver more “justice” to the ignorant and undeserving. The two embark on a spree that allows us to celebrate grisly comeuppance for everyone from loud moviegoers to thinly disguised Fox News hosts. Joel Murray cuts the misanthropy with a squinting, grumpy wryness that plays happily against Barr’s wiseass teenager. The relationship is firmly paternalistic. Frank’s principles come in handy in ruling out less savory undertones – as he makes clear to Roxy, he includes sexualization of children among society’s crimes.
“God Bless America” lives in the differences between Frank and Roxy. The two killers are in constant discussion over the criteria for victims. Roxy errs on the side of killing pretty much everyone. Her nihilistic teenage bluster allows Frank to display his principles, and those principles in turn let her push at the logical boundary of his absolutism. They make a great pair. Their defining exchange is Roxy putting “anyone who gives high fives” on her list of the guilty; Frank quite likes high fives and is disappointed. That they are not the same means that we can’t see the film purely as a universal rant for the smugly superior. Then we are free to simply tag along and enjoy the what-the-hell fun of the spree against their common enemies.
The man-and-girl team naturally recalls “Super”, itself a 2010 TIFF Midnight Madness pick. In that film Rainn Wilson was driven to fantastic violence, with Ellen Page his young sidekick. But where Super’s protagonist was driven to insane heights by personal vengeance, here Frank is motivated by a much broader, matter-of-fact hate, and at no point is he allowed wild-eyed craziness. This helps: Frank can stand in for us, and the shocking violence can be our shocking violence, which I think makes it a bit less shocking. Of course it also helps that “God Bless America” has excellent jokes.