You remember Bobcat Goldthwait. He became a comedy star in the 1980s thanks to what amounted to a gimmick: the persona of a sweaty, wired, Tab-swilling punk dude who screeched like a banshee. That character got him plenty of TV and movie work (he still seems, unfortunately enough, best known for his supporting roles in three Police Academy movies), but as with his contemporary Sam Kinison — with whom he was often compared — there was more to his comedy than volume. Behind the bellowing mad man was a wry and perceptive social commentator, which is why his new film, the bold and brilliant pitch-black comedy God Bless America, is, as he notes, “closest to the style of how I did stand-up.” It’s a scathing satire and plea for harmony, dressed up as a hyper-violent revenge thriller.
He directed one film at the height of his comedy stardom (Shakes the Clown, poorly received at that time, a cult classic in the years since), but his career has a performer flamed out shortly thereafter — somewhat literally, after a notorious incident during a Tonight Show appearance where he lit Jay Leno’s set on fire. He did voice work and reshaped his stand-up persona, and started directing for Jimmy Kimmel. “I was directing the Kimmel show, and I had this screenplay that I wrote,” he explains, referring to his second film, Sleeping Dogs Lie. “The woman who’s now my wife said ‘This is a pretty good script, we should film it.’ And I was like, ‘Well, you know, I don’t have any money.’ And she said, ‘We’ll just start, and people will help,’ and we shot it for 20 grand with a crew from Craigslist, and everybody would beg and borrow and steal and then that movie went on to Sundance. So that was when everything changed for me.” The marvelously dark World’s Greatest Dad (starring Robin Williams) followed in 2009, around the time that ideas for God Bless America began percolating.
“A few years back,” he recalls, “during all these town hall meetings, people were just shouting and interrupting, over and over again. And then I saw the President being heckled on the House floor, and I was like… y’know, I’m not a fan of George Bush, but even if he got heckled on the House floor, I would’ve been a little depressed for us as people. Like, where are we going? There’s no decorum, no civil discourse anymore. And then a My Super Sweet 16 marathon that played in England while I was there made me really sad.”
A program markedly similar to that one provides the instigating action for God Bless America. Frank (Joel Murray, best known as occasional pants-wetter Freddie Rumsen on Mad Men) is a divorced dad who has just been diagnosed with a terminal disease. Recently fired from his job, he sits on his couch, a gun in his mouth, ready to commit suicide, when his eye is caught by a spoiled brat on TV, screaming at her parents for buying her the wrong new car. A glimmer appears in Frank’s eye. Maybe he’ll take her out before he goes. And a few others along the way.
The idea of objecting to a lack of civility in society by making a movie about a killing spree may strike some as incongruent, but that’s often how the best satire works — and what’s left of satire these days is often toothless and soft, a charge that cannot be leveled at Goldthwait’s film. It’s ballsy, outrageous even, and it will make audiences uncomfortable (while also occasionally thrilling them in its willingness to take big risks and challenge assumptions). In that way, it recalls the ’70s films that Goldthwait pinpoints as influences, pictures like Little Murders, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network — though, in a significant departure from the latter, the television shows and commercials that Goldthwait includes in his film employ no comedic exaggeration whatsoever. How could they? How much further could he go?
“I didn’t want to parody this stuff,” he says. “I actually just re-filmed it. When you turn on Glenn Beck and he’s standing in front of a picture of Obama as Hitler, you know, I can’t parody that.” What he also didn’t want to do was let the audience off the hook. “I went back and watched other movies that I knew people would compare it to, and I don’t really care for Natural Born Killers because it blames the media and I think that’s pretty lazy. I wanted to write a movie that blamed us and our weird appetite for all this distraction and crap, and blaming ourselves for cutting ourselves off from each other. Falling Down does that thing that I don’t like where, before he kills a guy, we find out that he’s a Nazi, so we don’t feel guilty, you’re still supposed to root for Michael Douglas… you know, you should be uncomfortable when anyone kills anyone, even if it’s justifiable homicide in a movie — if it’s really an accurate portrayal of life, that’s horrific. So this movie’s not an accurate portrayal of life, but you should be confused when someone you’re supposed to empathize with is actually killing people. I’m hoping that people are conflicted.”
That said, some of the film’s targets probably won’t be all that conflicted. Frank and his teenage charge (played by Tara Lynne Barr) mow down a group of distinctively Westboro-like anti-gay protestors, and Margie Phelps has already taken to Twitter to call it a “delusional ditty perfect4violent doomed nation.” (She did, however, seem pleased that it “ShowsWBSigns.”) Goldthwait’s message to the Phelps clan: “You guys use the Bible the way Kim Kardashian uses her ass. You don’t care what’s in the book; you just want to be famous.” He feels there could be room for discussion with Bill O’Reilly, though an O’Reilly surrogate in God Bless America also comes to rather a grisly end. “Like Frank, there a few things about Bill O’Reilly that I agree with,” Goldthwait admits. “I don’t know if his fans know this, he doesn’t really promote it much, but y’know, he’s anti-death penalty, which I am. But he and I are never going to be able to work on changing any of our laws about that, because he’s too busy bashing Hollywood, we’re a bunch of pinheads… you know, these people don’t want solutions, they don’t want to fix what’s wrong with the country, they just want to perpetuate fear, because that’s how they make their living, being dopey entertainers that are fear mongers.” And he then takes a perfectly timed pause before adding, “But at no time does that character ever hit on an employee, so he’s clearly not Bill O’Reilly.”
God Bless America is in theaters today. It is also available on demand.